By Sherrie Norris
While many of us, in early March, were glued to our screens at the onset of the war between Russia and Ukraine, one local woman was packing her bags with a mission in mind.
Linda “Bunny” Eilers, a longtime High Country home-owner who shares her time between homes in the Linville area and Myrtle Beach, was determined to do what she could to help refugees seeking asylum from the devastation in their beloved country.
“I am a firm believer in that saying, ‘Evil wins when good does nothing,’” Eilers said.
As the war began, Eilers was actually on a mission trip to Honduras with the Friends of Barnabus Foundation, a nonprofit Methodist mission organization.
Upon returning home, Eilers learned that North Carolina Baptists on Mission was preparing to send its first team to the Ukraine area. Through an existing partnership with Hungarian Baptist Aid, NC BOM was assigning volunteers to work in schools near the Ukraine-Hungary boarder that had been transformed into refugee camps.
Much to the chagrin of her family, Eilers, a 70-something recent widow, mother and grandmother, volunteered for the trip — and there was little anyone could do to stop her.
Her daughter Kimberly Eilers Brown in Mexico contacted the BOM office to explain that her “elderly mother” should not go on that trip, but soon realized her only recourse was to give up the fight and join her mother. So it was, a new phrase was eventually coined to describe their “adventure” — “Bunny, The Baptists and The Bodyguard.”
With mere days to prepare, Eilers began frantically gathering support and necessities for her trip.
“The devil was at work to keep this team from going,” she related as she prepared to board her plane Monday morning, March 7.
Having her daughter join her for the trip was comforting, Eilers admitted, but it also “changed the dynamics,” as concern for Kimberly’s safety was utmost in her mind, as was Kimberly’s concern for her mother.
The women took extra precautions in packing — medications “in case of dysentery,” ceramic filter water bottles for bacteria-free water, safety/tracking devices — and they formulated a plan to turn back, if needed, at their connecting airports.
The Work Begins
On Tuesday, March 8, a team of 11 representing NC BOM arrived at the small Budapest airport.
“The three- hour van ride east to our bunk house (at a Baptist-run summer camp for Hungarian and gypsy children, staffed by volunteer American Baptists) looked very much like driving through rural Eastern North Carolina in winter. There was little traffic; no smoke or fire or convoys in sight. Things looked normal in Budapest while war was raging just a short distance away.”
“Each day, a part of our team drove two hours east, to the small town of Tiszabecs at the Ukraine border to the refugee camp where we were assigned; the Ukrainians were arriving by the bus load, after traveling to the border by train, car and on foot.”
Some of the team worked 8-12 hours shifts at the center; others worked in the warehouse closer to the border. They were exhausted as they traveled the two hours back to their camp each evening.
Eilers noted that the Baptists and several religious relief groups — Catholics, Presbyterians and others — were there working together, under the approval and rules of Hungarian government, which also provided food, supplies and school buildings for shelter.
“My bunk mates were Hungarian Baptists living in Spain who came back to work at the refugee camps,” she said.
Reminiscent of The Tower of Babel
Because neither the American volunteers nor the Hungarians spoke Ukrainian , working at the refugee help center reminded Eilers what the Tower of Babel must have been like in Biblical times.
“Without translators we would have been lost,” she said. “Thank God for multi-lingual people who showed up at the border refugee centers.”
But, she did discover the universal language that made people smile in the direst of times was chocolate. “Everyone recognized Hersheys and Reeses.”
And children of all ages, she said, from those two years of age to the town mayor, smiled when stickers were affixed to their hands and shirts. “Smiles and warm hugs breached the language barrier so many times when there were no words of comfort.”
The team did have some internet connection at their base camp, which helped them sporadically communicate with loved ones back home — “but nothing once we left each morning until we returned late that night.”
During their stay, the team experienced only minor discomforts, a few scares, but no substantial threats. “We were alerted one day to stay indoors and avoid crowds.”
Around the Clock
The volunteers worked around the clock, and fortunately not in the immediate danger zone, but the school building in which they served was just one mile from the Ukraine border.
“The Baptist organizers were no longer allowing volunteers to be at the border to meet incoming trains from the Ukraine,” Eilers described. “So, Hungarian buses meet the trains and bring the refugees to the school/shelter.”
The team learned, soon after arrival, that in the two weeks prior, approximately 200,000 refugees had already crossed over the three entry sites into Hungary.
“That means that about 60,000 had come through our facility day and night —about 30,000 a week, 4,000 every 24 hours.”
Eilers said that Poland’s border was longer, with more entry points, and at that time, had already taken in about 1 million refugees in two weeks.
She noted that while Hungary is part of NATO, its people did not seem to take much comfort in that.
“Hungary is dependent on Russia for about 80 percent of its oil and natural gas,” she said.
The NC team was shown, by the locals, major roads into town with a wide swath cleared through the trees to allow for better visibility — should Russian convoys enter their towns.
“There were also deep ditches dug along those major roadsides that the government indicated were for cables, but others referred to simply as ‘trenches.’”
Eilers and her team expected heartbreaking situations — and there were many.
Offering Comfort Amid the Chaos
“The refugees we saw came in to the shelter were shell-shocked and traumatized, some with the 1,000-yard stare,” Eilers described. “Some were in tears, some were trying to be stoic.”
They were mostly women and children, as the men stayed in Ukraine to defend their country.
“They arrived one bus load at a time, so there were no masses of hundreds or thousands, as people may visualize. It was a constant stream of people controlled by bus capacity. Most of the time, we were too slammed busy to take photos when lines were long or large. It was 20-30 degrees outside, so our priority was to get them indoors as quickly as possible.”
There was a constant stream of refugees coming across the border, she shared. “Those in private vehicles were not required to stop, so they kept on driving, unless they wanted hot coffee and food or bathrooms. Those coming to the border on foot, by train, wagon etc., were picked up by Hungarian town buses and delivered to our refugee center.”
And, there were tragic stories every day.
“One young woman gave birth on the evacuation train and the baby was resuscitated, but died hours later. One family that Kimberly tended to, a 30-something daughter and parents, had decided to ‘tough it out’ in their beautiful Kiev home — until a bomb came through the roof and the living room ceiling fell in on them. They were making their way to Spain to distant relatives.
“Another mother with children, obviously wealthy in their expensive fashionable ski outfits, stood confused in the mayhem. We could only wonder what they were leaving behind.”
When entering the shelter and sitting with friends, one woman wouldn’t respond or look up, at first, until Eilers handed her a Hershey’s chocolate. “When she looked up, she said that her home had been bombed and demolished. Her husband could not and would not leave —the draft was in place for men 15-60. He was a soldier now. She had to leave him in Kiev to fight, and she was so miserable and heartbroken. I told her that he certainly was a hero and deserved a gold star so I pulled out my kid stickers and put the gold and blue stars on her hand. She smiled. We both hugged and cried and prayed together.”
Kimberly Eilers Brown will always remember the two Russian college students who rushed away from their buildings as they were being bombed. Making their way across Ukraine by train, the young women were glad to seek refuge in the shelter. They spoke no English, but seemed to appreciate Brown’s attempts to say hello in Russian.
While they might not have had time for many pictures, the team did try to take time to hug and pray with or for the refugees, Eilers shared. “And sometimes, we just hugged them as they cried. And a lot of the time we cried, too. It was impossible not to. Food and drink only does so much — and then people just need human touch.”
And then, there were the gypsies —” just as sparkly in colorful costumes as any Hollywood movie,” Eilers described. “There is a large population of Roma (gypsies) in Ukraine. We helped them, and in typical gypsy fashion, they then helped themselves. They would fill their suitcases with food and toiletry items we gave away, snatching what they wanted and then walked the two blocks back across the border and sold those same items to the incoming refugees who could’ve gotten it all free at the center. At one point, the police had to banish one busy gypsy family from the center as it was clear they were working the system.”
Eilers added, “The Baptists haven’t given up on them and conduct summer VBS camps just for Roma children.”
Most Hungarian towns from Ukraine border westward, Eilers said, have converted portions of their schools to feed and sleep refugees making their passage to family and friends all over Europe. The Baptist Refugee Help Center at Tiszabecs, where her team worked, was actually a school that had been turned over to the refugees for the duration.
“The gym sleeps 70 on cots,” Eilers said. “Volunteers sleep on the floors of classrooms; the kitchen staff cook and make hot coffee and tea all day, then we volunteers make sandwiches when they go home.”
This experience has made Eilers “one-thousand times more grateful for living in free America and one-thousand times more grateful for all the military personnel who have died in wars past to keep America free,” she said. “And for my Dad, who was a submariner in the Pacific in WWII and my uncle who’s ship barely escaped sinking in Pearl Harbor and my late husband Tom who was an Air Force Jet Fighter Pilot in Viet Nam.
“This war is far from over — and the needs of these refugees are only going to explode.”
It Took A Village
God works in mysterious ways to get his work done, Eilers said.
“So many unexpected blessings came together in the most amazing ways from my family, out-of- town friends and especially the generous and compassionate people of the High Country.
For example, she shared:
- “A special Boone friend invited me to breakfast before departure, and after paying for my breakfast, handed me a fat envelope of cash from her and her husband, which I used to help pay off the balance of my airline fare and other expenses, as well as a cot and sleeping bag.”
- “And three of my bonus children deposited substantial sums into my Venmo account to help pay for expenses. “
- “And when I went back to the Avery County Health Department for my appointment to get the required Covid test, the nurse handed me a Hallmark card with $200 cash that the nurses Veronica, Carrie and their admin staff, Jane and Chad, had collected — to my total surprise! Tears of gratitude leaked from my eyes as she swabbed my nose and Carrie said, ‘Will you stop that . . you’re diluting my sample!’ And we both laughed. So, I took that cash and went straight to Walmart and bought all the hand warmers (the kind hunters and skiers use) off the shelf, as I knew the temps in Ukraine and Hungary dipped into the 20’s at night and the traveling refugees would be freezing.
- With cash left over, I bought many bags of miniature wrapped chocolates to give out at the shelter, and several bags of glitter stars and assorted stickers to entertain the children coming to the shelter.
- “When I went to Boone Drug (to get the other, required, staggered, Covid test that cost $100) the wonderful pharmacist, Sam, came back in after hours to administer a timely covid test, and then said that Boone Drug owner, Corey Furman paid for my covid test and there was no charge. I was so grateful for their kindness. Then, Pharmacist Sam asked if he could pray for me and with me and he did — and I left Boone Drug feeling blessed and up-lifted, and thankfully negative.
- “My bonus daughter in Charlotte loaned Kimberly a backpack and lots of warm ski clothes, since she lives in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and had no warm clothes to take with her.
- “And my lifelong special friends on Topsail Beach were trying to wire me funds in Hungary while our team was there. (I wish I could have received it as we needed another 70 sets of single sheets for the cots. To prevent outbreaks of bedbugs and scabies in group shelters, the bedding can only be used once and thrown away or washed in between…there were not enough sheets as a batch were always in the laundry.)
- “And let’s not overlook all the many people who were praying for our team and the refugees and who constantly texted and emailed their love and concern the whole time we were gone.”
The day before the team left Hungary, Eilers received an email from her nursing school roommate who had introduced her to her Methodist church’s medical mission team to Honduras (that she’s now served on twice).
“She and my roommate on the Honduras medical mission trip in February, were following our progress in Hungary,” Eilers shared. “Their Sunday School classes had been praying for our Baptist team and dedicated their Sunday School lesson to the war crisis and offered up Psalms 10 for our benefit.”
So, being inspired by the scripture — “and the joyous occasion that a Methodist Sunday School class would be praying for a group of Baptists on Mission,” Eilers used it all to give a brief devotion to her team the last morning.
“And, of course, the humor was not lost on anyone — and my Baptist Mission team asked me to convey their thanks to my Methodist Mission team.”
And on a lighter note, Eilers concluded, “Our team leader, Scott, did chuckle and say that there will be no Methodists in heaven. Neither will there be Baptists in heaven —just Christians.”