How I Ended Up in Ukraine - Geneva College, a Christian College in Pennsylvania (PA)
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Study Abroad
May 31, 2022

How I Ended Up in Ukraine

“What’s the plan today, Jess?” Igor sidled up to me.   

I shrugged and swallowed a yawn as we faced the flags rippling in the morning breeze. “How should I know?”

“Because.” Alyona’s sandals scuffed against the cracked, sandy asphalt and she grinned sleepily. “Americans know everything.”

“No, we don’t.” The three of us clasped our hands behind our backs as the Ukrainian national anthem swelled from the speaker. I smiled at her. “We just think we do.”

I met Igor and Alyona at English Camp, a church-led, week-long summer camp outside of Kyiv, Ukraine.

I often get asked how I ended up in Ukraine this past summer. It’s harder to answer than one might think. Sure, I flew from Dulles to Kyiv in a brisk fifteen hours, but the entire process? Well, that took two years and a brief detour through Mongolia. 

My second semester at Geneva College, a guest came to my Missions & Culture class and spoke about their organization, sending missionaries overseas to teach English in countries hostile to the Gospel. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but I loved Jesus, traveling, and English. So in December 2019, I signed up to go to Mongolia the following summer, never dreaming a world pandemic would get in the way.

“Okay, God,” I said through my tears. “Next year then. Mongolia or bust. It’s not like this can go on for another year, right?”

Wrong. April of 2021 rolled around and Mongolia’s borders stayed firmly shut. I voiced my frustration and grief to my professor, Dr. Watt: Why wouldn’t God let me go overseas and serve Jesus!?

“Maybe you’re not supposed to go to Mongolia,” Dr. Watt said. “Pray about it, talk to other organizations. See what God can do.”

I took his advice. Again and again, I heard: “Our overseas work is postponed” and “We’re not taking interns right now.”

It didn’t make sense. I could see God’s hand in holding me back in 2020, but He’d done so much work in me since then. A year of waiting had humbled me, given me time to grow and learn and prepare. What was God preparing me for if not to go to Mongolia? I’d struggled with my purpose for so long and felt so unsure of what to do. God had brought me to Geneva, sat me in that missions course, and connected me with this organization. I expected Mongolia to show me I was in the right place, going the right direction. If I never made it overseas, it was back to square one.

One rainy day, I sat under a pop-up tent on Geneva’s campus, my bare feet on the wet concrete, watching rain run rivers off the roof, bracing for another rejection as I rattled off my practiced speech.

The woman on the other line paused. “We don’t serve in Mongolia, but I might have something for you in Ukraine.”

Two months later I stood outside the Kyiv airport looking for a woman in a green shirt, my host for the next seven weeks.

Those seven weeks hold many of the most joyful, strange, difficult, and transformative moments of my life. I watched a military officer-turned-pastor dunk new Christians in the Dnieper River, to the shouts and cheers of their little congregation. Tiny grandmothers grabbed my face in their soft, wrinkled hands, kissed me on both cheeks, and dove into a monologue in breakneck Ukrainian. Trying (and failing) to buy blueberries sent me into hysterics. I sat in circles with Ukrainians as we tried to turn our tongues around each others’ vocabulary. I realized that love surpasses any language barriers, and the power of the Cross supersedes all cultural clashes.

Geneva and my professors cultivated the love of people and language within me, cheered me on, prayed me forward, and spoke truth into my life, leading me to Kyiv. Geneva first put the passion for teaching English in my heart and supported me academically and spiritually when I finally got to put my education into practice.

Now, ten months later, I’ve watched the city that welcomed me crumble. Last week, I saw an apartment building torn in half. I’d attended Ukrainian lessons just across the street.

I’ve explored streets that are now split by missiles. I’ve waited in subway stations that have been converted into bomb shelters. I stood in buildings that no longer stand. People welcomed me into homes that they’ve since fled. I am heartbroken by the unjust, inexcusable treatment of innocent people, people who showed me kindness and hospitality and grace. I am humbled and awed that God would take me from Geneva, through Mongolia, to Ukraine. And I am reminded of my last day at English Camp.

“If you could tell the world one thing about Ukraine, what would it be?” I looked at Igor and Alyona, Nikita and Dima, Bogdan and Olya, Tima and Artem.

“That we exist,” Alyona said. “That we are here. And we are beautiful. And don’t forget it.”

-Jess Markley ‘21