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Sarah Walker '06 Supporting the People of Ukraine

Published Wednesday, August 09, 2023

Sarah Walker '06
Sarah Walker '06

Sarah Walker didn’t set out to go to Ukraine in 2022. She dreamed of working with refugees one day and found ways to volunteer wherever she could. Then Ukraine needed her, and she was ready.  

Walker graduated from SMSU in 2006 with a degree in sociology. While at SMSU, and later as a community volunteer, she was very involved with the international student community, Cru, and Bridges International. Upon graduation, she wanted to experience life in a different culture and moved overseas for two years to do ministry in Russia.  

“I fell in love with the people of Eastern Europe, and the language,” said Walker. “I returned to the U.S. and worked at Hope Harbor in Marshall. I love that organization and the opportunity I had to help teens and families in crisis.” 

For ten years she worked with families through Hope Harbor, receiving an abundance of training like conflict resolution, trauma-informed care and eventually becoming certified as a Biblical counselor. In August 2021 she could sense a shift in the path she was taking.  

“That was when Kabul fell to the Taliban and thousands of evacuees came to Fort McCoy Wisconsin, just an hour from where I was living,” she explained. “I volunteered on base regularly for about six months, until all the refugees had been resettled, thinking this might be a strange way to fulfill the dream I'd had to serve at a refugee camp.”  

A week later Russia invaded Ukraine and Walker realized the passion she had for those fleeing violence and war had only grown.  And thanks to her two years in Russia, she also spoke the same language as many Ukrainians.  

“Even though I had a full plate with work and school, my heart ached to do something,” she said.  

In September 2022, Walker joined a team traveling along the border to support Ukrainians fleeing the war, as well as the volunteers serving them. On that trip, she used only 5 days of a 90-day Ukrainian visa and when we left, she was determined to return as soon as possible.  

“I contacted Living Water, an organization we had met briefly on our travels along the border. I saw the miraculous work they were doing— housing families fleeing the eastern part of Ukraine, coordinating humanitarian aid deliveries, and supporting churches, shelters, and children's homes. I wanted to join them.” 

On December 1, 2022, Walker returned to Ukraine, settling in Mukachevo where she has been volunteering by working in the warehouse, serving as an interpreter to support humanitarian teams, and spending time each day at one of the refugee centers, mostly playing with kids and leading activities to help support mental and emotional health. 

“I spend a lot of time in the refugee centers. At a given time we may have 14 kids. In my previous job I was involved with and trained in trauma-informed care. I spend time there doing intentional activities with the kids. I speak Russian conversationally and a lot of the refugees come from the east, where Russian is the first language. I can talk to many of them,” she continued. “For the families whose first language is Ukrainian, they are patient with me. I am studying Ukrainian and because the grammar is similar to Russian, I’m able to learn it as I go.” 

Walker is also studying for a master’s degree in clinical social work with a focus on trauma care. She is getting real-world experience doing a lot of body-based interventions for kids. She can see them acting out, without understanding what they’re dealing with or even what they’re saying but knowing which activities will help calm the nervous system. 

Walker originally came for three months and then a week before the visa expired, she knew her work was not done. The refugee centers were still open. She had just started counseling with a couple of women. She approached the pastor and his wife because she knew they sponsored someone for a volunteer visa. She asked if they would sponsor her. They drove across four borders in one day to get to the consulate in the Czech Republic to get an extension to her visa.  

Walker has taken trips with other humanitarian workers to Ukrainian states called oblast. This spring they took a trip to Sumi where they partnered with a church that we first visited in December. Villages in that area were liberated from the Russian occupation, and so we bring aid into those villages. Donors from all over the world contribute so we can provide people with what they need.  

“The Ukrainian people are amazing. They talk about the resiliency and when the invasion first happened in Kiev and normal civilians were putting on the armbands of duct tape that were blue, yellow, and white, and that meant ‘I'm fighting’ and they just went to the streets looking for ways to help,” said Walker. “The people are tough and are determined to fight until they have their country back. That's been really incredible to see.” 

Walker said the most rewarding part is seeing when she can bring peace to someone. She has the training to help people but sometimes it means just being present.  

“That's by far the most rewarding thing, and sometimes it's not words. Sometimes it’s just important to be there. If what I’m doing only impacts one person, I know that person is worth it,” she said. “I feel very, very blessed that part of what I get to do here is just amazing.” 

Walker finds that the hardest part is being away from the family and people she loves, knowing that they worry about her safety.  

“I don't personally worry, but it was eye-opening the first time we drove East, went past Kyiv, and saw everything exploded,” she said. “But I know and want my friends and family to know that I feel very safe here in Mukachevo, which is close to the border with Hungary.” 

When asked what she’d like people back home in the United States to know, the hard answer is don't forget. They can see by looking at financial donations that people are getting tired. They're forgetting the war is still happening, and there are still people suffering and have it worse now. There are no homes to go back to because everything's been destroyed, and with the targeting of the Nova Kakhovka dam, the future of thousands is even bleaker - homes, farming, ecosystems all destroyed. 

“We just ask that people don't forget. If people want to help and can't do it financially, then we ask that they keep praying for us,” said Walker.  

She reflects on her time at SMSU as preparation for her journey. She was very involved with the international students on campus. She loves meeting people from all over the world. She shared a residence with friends from Nepal and to have already had that experience of cross-cultural living was a great introduction to what the future had in store for her. 

“This is what I want to do. That desire has brought me here and I'm grateful for that,” said Walker. “You just never know what one step is going to lead to on the way and for whatever reasons, everything that you've done up to this point has brought you prepared to where you are right now.” 

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