Ukraine’s Fight Feels Close to Home for These Americans

In Evanston, Ill., when the notification popped up on his phone on Wednesday that Russia was invading Ukraine, Alex Telischak, 42, rushed to turn on the news and then quickly called his wife’s parents. They live in the western Ukrainian city of Ternopil, and he and his wife worried they might not be able to contact them again for an unknown amount of time if phone lines or internet service failed.

“That’s emotionally difficult for both parties,” he said. “You are not saying goodbye, but it is almost like that, because you don’t know when the conversation might continue.”

His wife’s parents are among the 130,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ukraine. In 2017, Russia banned the denomination, whose members believe in nonviolence and refuse to take up arms in war; Russia called it an extremist group. Since then, some 1,700 Witnesses’ homes in Russia have been raided and about 320 Witnesses have been imprisoned, including a crackdown in Crimea, according to the denomination’s statistics. Mr. Telischak did not dare to venture a guess as to what could happen in Ukraine.

The couple tried to not watch too much news to avoid getting too upset, he said. When it was time to sleep, they kept looking at Viber, the messaging app they use to communicate with their family. “You go to bed, you check. You wake up, you check,” he said. “We told them, ‘Anything, you text, you call, whatever the time is.’”

On Thursday afternoon, his wife got a message that an air raid siren had gone off, and that her parents fled their old concrete-style building. Outside, a member of their Jehovah’s Witness congregation was driving by and piled them into his car. Men from their congregation had been checking on them and others for weeks, making sure everyone had a go-bag, flashlights, water and a plan.

If the parents had to leave the country as refugees, Mr. Telischak trusted other Witnesses would take them in. “Having a community, or a religion that is borderless, that is a tremendous comfort to us,” he said.

He has been finding comfort in the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus told his disciples not to fear when there would be wars and rumors of wars, when nation would rise against nation.

“We also understand the Bible foretells a time when all this goes away, when there won’t be these wars anymore, there won’t be these conflicts between nations, and enmity and strife,” he said. “The disciples weren’t asking because they wanted to know when things would get really bad. They wanted to know, when was the solution, when was the fix going to come.”

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