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Going Further: Q&A with Ukraine Response Coordinator Robert Hessenauer

February 2023 marks the 1-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine. From the beginning, World Relief has been responding — welcoming Ukrainians seeking safety in the U.S. and working alongside Christian agencies and churches in Ukraine and the surrounding countries of Slovakia, Poland, Romania and Moldova to support those displaced by the ongoing war. 

Our partners have been running refugee shelters, providing transportation to those who are fleeing, sending convoys of food and supplies into Ukraine and providing emergency humanitarian aid to those in greatest need.

Over the past several months, it has become clear that a long-term presence in Ukraine is needed and that World Relief has been called to respond. 

To lead our ongoing response in the region, we recently welcomed Robert Hessenauer into the role of Ukraine Response Coordinator. We sat down with Robert to learn more about what led him to this work, his heart for those suffering in Ukraine and what World Relief hopes to accomplish in the region.

Thank you for speaking with us, Robert. Could you start by telling us a bit about yourself and how you came to World Relief?

I grew up in the Philadelphia area and went to college to study business. After learning more about the international development field, I switched majors, and soon after that heard about World Relief. I’d never heard of any Christian organization doing development work the way World Relief did, and from that moment on, I became intrigued by our mission.

In college, I spent a semester abroad working with Compassion International in Uganda. While there, one of my host family’s sons died from a treatable disease, awakening me to the need and the call God placed on my heart to respond to the suffering around me.

After college, I worked for a homeless shelter before enrolling in my graduate studies. While there, I met my wife, got married and took a job with the Mennonite Central Committee. Since I loved the time I’d spent in Uganda, I hoped to serve abroad again. So when the role of Ukraine Country Director opened up, I leapt at the opportunity. I served in that role for two years, allowing me to become comfortable in the local language and for our family to adapt and immerse ourselves in the culture.

Now that I’m with World Relief, the Response Coordinator position feels like a homecoming. My family has a big heart for Ukraine and we’re so happy to be back.

Can you tell us about something that’s inspired you since starting your new role?

World Relief has been on the ground in Romania working with a local partner called Fight For Freedom (FFF). Though FFF started as a prison and homelessness ministry, they pivoted to humanitarian aid for refugees when Ukrainians arrived near the border with very specific needs.

FFF has grown tremendously since last February. I’ve witnessed their staff really pour out their hearts for Ukrainians, sacrificing so much for their neighbors up north. Their work has also received recognition from Ukraine’s government, which has requested their help in receiving refugee children from Kyiv and Odessa. 

Already, FFF has received 200 children from Ukraine and found temporarily housing until they are able to return home. And this is in a country whose border disputes, language barriers and other cultural divisions with Ukraine have made direct refugee responses to its citizens very challenging.

A child colors at one of Fight for Freedom’s Child Centers for Ukrainian refugees.

Why should Americans care about what’s going on in Ukraine?

Since most of us live an ocean away, it’s easy for Americans to fall victim to the news cycle and assume that the suffering experienced across Ukraine is new. In reality, the Russo-Ukrainian War has been ongoing since 2014, wreaking social and economic havoc across the country for nearly a decade. Now that missiles are flying, Ukraine’s already-vulnerable communities are in a very fragile state. It’s hard to find work, electricity is scarce and many struggle to find reliable hot water or shelter. 

What’s more, Ukraine’s freezing climate makes it unique from most areas where World Relief works. Cold-weather poverty is a challenge that requires speed and resilience but also patience and prayer. I believe that we should care not only because we as Christians are called to serve the most vulnerable, but also because the challenges Ukraine is facing are immediate yet deeply complex with many nuances. Therefore, it requires listening, patience and grace when hearing the news and responding to needs.

How is World Relief planning to tackle these complex challenges in the coming year?

So far, World Relief has already developed close relationships with partners across Romania, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia. Moving forward, we plan to build partnerships with organizations based in Ukraine itself. Thankfully, World Relief’s emergency response to Ukraine with regional partners lends us both the expertise we need in areas such as winterization and food shipment as well as key relationships we’ll be able to leverage as we carry out cross-border refugee assistance.

Once firmly established in Ukraine, we will launch a needs assessment, which will include learning from local churches, organizations and government officials about how World Relief can leverage its capacity and partnerships — both current and future — to serve the community. We plan for food and NFI (non-food items such as blankets and cooking items) assistance and winterization aid to be the core pillars of our work in the short-term.

World Relief’s partners at Fight for Freedom distribute food to Ukrainians.

What unique role do you see us playing as we establish a presence in Ukraine?

I think that World Relief fills a niche that no other organization can fill in Ukraine for two reasons. First, we have a unique relationship and a high level of credibility with churches around the world, allowing us to respond quickly to the needs of fleeing Ukrainians rather than starting from scratch. Second, World Relief has been working in the United States to help resettle Ukrainian refugees for nearly 20 years, giving us insight into multiple sides of their struggles and stories. Both these things allow us to connect with Ukrainians and meet them in the midst of their struggle in ways that others cannot.

How can we be praying for Ukraine right now?

I would be grateful if readers prayed for faithful, compassionate team members as the Ukraine team grows and expands in the region. Please also pray for the safety of the local organizations and World Relief’s partners as they do their work in Ukraine, move across borders and meet the needs of Ukrainians. Lastly, I’d ask that our readers pray for the churches of Ukraine — that they are able to continually rely on Christ and look to him for strength and guidance in the midst of these desperate times.

We are grateful for Robert and all of our staff across the globe who go further to meet those in need. By giving monthly or a one time gift, you can help us reach even more people in more places as we move forward together.

Sam Pence serves as a Partnership Content Specialist at World Relief and has a passion for seeing communities transformed through radical kinship, faith and service. He lives in Washington, D.C. and enjoys running, reading, and writing songs when not working alongside his incredible World Relief teammates.

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