Vasily Lantukh has spent long hours in his office at New Life Church over the past week, checking in with his family in Ukraine every chance he could while praying for their safety.
The senior pastor, who left Ukraine for the U.S. more than 20 years ago, sat at his desk as he texted back and forth with his niece and her husband since Ukraine came under attack from Russia. While they are safe for now, Lantukh said the situation can change at any minute.
His niece’s husband sent him photos and videos of houses and small communities completely destroyed by Russian missiles, flames still burning what remained of some homes.
“That’s about five minutes of a walk from the place where he’s staying. And he came back and he’s still not given up. He got his kids together and they start worshiping God.”
In the next video he sent, he was strumming a guitar and singing along with his kids, a big smile on all of their faces.
“That’s the kind of people Ukrainians are,” Lantukh said. “They’re fighting for their freedom and for their belief. They’re fighting physically, emotionally and spiritually.”
But as they and other citizens fight to survive in Ukraine, Lantukh and many others in the Slavic community have vowed to fight and to provide help all the way from Forsyth County.
Addressing immediate needs
Lantukh said there is a large population of Ukrainians and other eastern Europeans in Forsyth County, all impacted by the situation in Ukraine in their own way. According to data released by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2020, nearly 10,000 people of Ukrainian descent live in the metro Atlanta area — with some of the highest populations being in Johns Creek and Alpharetta.
Home for community members of more than 20 different nationalities, Lantukh said New Life Church is one of the largest international churches in metro Atlanta, and about half of their congregation is made up of Ukrainian churchgoers.
Alongside the church, they also have a K-12 school that serves many families from eastern Europe.
No matter their nationality, the congregation is now working nonstop to help support Ukraine and its citizens. To do that, they are addressing the immediate need to help the thousands of refugees fleeing the country.
Lantukh said their Bible teacher left Thursday morning on a flight to Poland where he plans to help organize camps for refugees and provide any needed help directly in eastern Europe.
According to information released by the United Nations, as of Wednesday, nearly 550,000 people have fled from Ukraine to Poland — with more than 500,000 others fleeing to other neighboring countries since Thursday, Feb. 24.
While New Life’s Bible teacher helps others in Europe, New Life Church leaders are working with the community to gather donations to send to refugees and find affordable housing arrangements for those who may soon seek shelter in metro Atlanta.
“We’re doing what we can here,” Lantukh said.
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The church set up a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds for refugees in Poland and surrounding countries earlier this week. In just 24 hours, they had raised more than $14,000. The current fundraising goal is $150,000.
The church also organized a GiveSendGo campaign where they have raised another $1,200 as of Thursday morning.
New Life Chruch is also accepting donations of clothes, shoes, household goods and more to go to refugees in Europe or coming into metro Atlanta. Lantukh said they took the seats out of an old school bus where they will be collecting and storing item donations while they look for a larger warehouse space.
The white bus, labeled with the word “donations” on the side, will sit on the side of the road where the church is located at 3150 Old Atlanta Road in Suwanee. A church member will be with the bus to collect any donations.
For larger items like mattresses, Lantukh asked that people call the church to have the donations picked up.
Outside of New Life Church, other congregations have also brought the Slavic community in Forsyth County together to find help and gather donations.
The Rev. Bohdan Maruszak with St. Andrew Ukrainian Orthodox Church has spearheaded fundraisers over the past week for refugees fleeing Ukraine. Although he and his congregation are still working out the logistics of sending donations and help over to eastern Europe, they are currently taking donations from any local businesses or community members who wish to help.
They are also accepting item donations like clothes, diapers, first aid and furnishings.
To make a donation, community members should call the church at 770-667-7257.
So far, Maruszak said the church has seen a massive amount of support from community members, local organizations, businesses and county leaders.
“This is overwhelmingly pleasant to see this much support from people,” Maruszak said. “I have seen support from Russian people who are against the war, support from Ukrainian people, the Jewish community …. I can’t stress enough how thankful we are for all of the support.”
Not only have community members been offering donations, but they are asking for other ways they can help the Ukrainian community in Forsyth through support and prayer. Many have offered to come to church services and volunteered to help raise funds for refugees.
Lantukh said the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office has also offered to help by promoting their GiveSendGo campaign page and spreading the word in the community, and the city of Cumming helped show support by displaying the Ukrainian flag’s colors on its water tower earlier this week.
“We are grateful for all of their support,” he said.
Both church leaders said the support from the community and county leaders have helped them to stay positive during an incredibly hard situation.
For now, Lantukh said New Life Church is staying busy preparing to take in refugees. They have 10 rooms ready as part of their K-12 school next to the church, meaning they may be able to take in 20 people.
“But there is going to be more than that,” Lantukh said.
Leaders at New Life Church are working to find affordable housing in Forsyth and the metro Atlanta area where more refugees may be able to shelter. While they all hope the war in Ukraine ends soon, they believe many more refugees will continue to need help.
“All of what you see in the news is less than half of the action, of the houses that have been demolished, the small towns that have been wiped out basically,” Lantukh said.
Aside from preparing for refugees, New Life Church members also took part in a #StandWithUkraine rally in downtown Atlanta on Saturday, Feb. 26, to help put political pressure on U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration to “take more bold steps to stop [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.”
Thousands gathered in the streets for the rally, carrying Ukrainian flags in support while calling for an end to the warfare.
Maruszak agreed that more steps need to be taken to help Ukrainian citizens and stop the violence.
“We are all devastated by the situation,” Maruszak said.
While Ukrainian communities in Forsyth County continue to check in on their families and friends who remain in Ukraine, many have asked that local residents continue to donate and offer help where they can.
“For us, it’s God’s command because God is a God of orphans,” Lantukh said. “A Father of orphans and a God of widows, so we have to be his hands. We see how important it is to be peacemakers.”