Distributing aid

Mission Eurasia Brings Humanitarian Aid and Evangelism to Refugees from Artsakh War

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DETROIT — The disaster of the 2020 Artsakh War led to as many as 100,000 refugees to initially flee Artsakh to Armenia. While many returned after the war, the humanitarian needs remain great and the resources of the Armenian and Artsakh governments limited. Aside from Armenian organizations throughout the world, various international institutions began to provide aid, including religious organizations. Mission Eurasia is one that has become active in Armenia, with Don Parsons, its ministry director for unreached people groups, taking three trips there since the end of October last year, and arranging for food, clothing, and other aid to be sent through various partner organizations.

Don Parsons with refugee children

Mission Eurasia (formerly called Peter Deyneka Russian Ministries) was founded in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union to, according to its current website, “react quickly and decisively to new opportunities for evangelism and church-planting in this former communist empire.” At present it is under the leadership of Sergey Rakhuba, who was originally from Ukraine but lived in Moscow for many years before moving to Illinois. Rakhuba attended the Moddy Bible Institute, a fundamentalist Christian institute of higher learning in Chicago. Mission Eurasia, the website continues, along with its in-country affiliate Mission Eurasia Field Ministries, works “to train, equip and mobilize the next generation of Christian leaders to transform their nations for Christ through strategic, holistic ministry.”

Parsons and his wife Esther lived for more than twelve years in the former Soviet Union, including eight years in Ukraine, starting in the late 1990s. Parsons, who grew up as an Evangelical Baptist, worked as a missionary and learned the Russian language. He did the same work in Kazakhstan. Parsons was director of Globalization and International Personnel at Send International, based in Farmington, Mich. He moved back to the US but last year decided to start working with Mission Eurasia. The organization has an international office in Franklin, Tenn., but its main field ministry office is outside of Kiev.

Parsons, who lives in the Detroit area, started September 1, and a month later was still trying to figure out during a covid year what work would be like for him, he said, when the president of the organization called and spoke about the situation in Armenia. He wanted to send a delegation to see what kind of support could be provided. Unexpectedly, Rakhuba asked whether Parsons would be able to leave for Armenia the next day. Having already recovered from a bout of covid, Parsons did not shy away from traveling and agreed to go.

This first trip of around ten days starting at the end of October was exploratory but boxes of food and the scriptures were also distributed. With a team including members from Ukraine and Russia, Parsons traveled up and down Armenia while the Artsakh war was still raging. When he went to Goris, a city of 20-22,000 people, he said he found more than 10,000 refugees from Artsakh. The mayor of Goris pointed to a school which was initially closed due to covid but now held women and children refugees using makeshift beds. The adult men at that point were still in Artsakh. The city government had difficulties in feeding an increase practically overnight of fifty percent of its population and later, Mission Eurasia was able to send some food to help.

He said of that trip: “It was a tough situation, and we heard tough stories from so many women. We visited homes where we knew people lost their husbands, brothers and sons.”

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Parsons’ second and third trips brought aid and also introduced people from Western partner organizations to the situation in Armenia. Parsons pointed out that they were not familiar with the language or culture so Mission Eurasia helped them understand the context. Two such organizations are Samaritan’s Purse, the international Christian relief and evangelism organization led by William “Franklin” Graham III, and headquartered in Boone, NC, and Christian Aid Ministries, based in Millersburg, Ohio, which is, according to its website, a “channel for Amish, Mennonite, and other conservative Anabaptist groups and individuals to minister to physical and spiritual needs around the world.”

A sample of an aid box prepared through Mission Eurasia

Parson’s second trip took place post-war, from December 15 to 24. Among the Armenian cities he traveled to was Vanadzor, where he and his team provided aid to a family that had lost so much in Artsakh. Its patriarch, who spoke Russian with them, was distraught, Parsons said. He was an older gentleman with multiple generations of family members. He had lost his farm with over 1,000 pomegranate trees, multiple cars, farm equipment, a house, and staff. They had fled quickly only with the clothing on their backs, thinking that the situation would be short lived as during the April 2016 war and they would quickly return. In Armenia, the government at that point was only providing subsidies for children from Artsakh but not for adults, so the family used these subsidies to help pay for rent and utilities.

Don Parsons, far right, standing in Vanadzor next to an Artsakh patriarch and his family, with a care package in the foreground

Parson’s most recent trip took place from February 19 to March 3. On this trip, among other things, he met a woman who had lost her brother and her husband. The local evangelical church prayed with her that they would be found, and the husband was seen on television, but then the news came that he had been killed. Parsons said, “One thing I saw with her is that people had come around her from the church. She was actually joyful – even with that deep pain she had a smile on her face – because she had experienced the love of the body of Christ in a way she had never experienced before.”

Parsons and Mission Eurasia have not gone directly into Artsakh, but some of its local partner churches have. Parsons gave the example of one Baptist church that sent 1,000 boxes of food there and was planning to send more soon. Parsons thought that entry to Karabakh could be a problem for him, as well as for the Ukrainian team members, due to strained Russian-Ukrainian relations.

Backstory

Mission Eurasia already had been doing work in Armenia. It did not have a physical office there but had partnerships with local evangelical churches and groups.

According to its 2019-20 report, it helped establish two churches in Armenia through its training of leaders in its School Without Walls program, which had 74 students and 26 graduates in three locations in Armenia in this period. Mission Eurasia also had 42 Bible day camps in Armenia which involved 560 children. It worked not only with Armenians, but also preaches the Gospel and provides humanitarian aid to Yazidis in the Republic of Armenia

Children from Artsakh at the Abovyan Church

Parsons revealed that among other things, Mission Eurasia partnered with an Armenian evangelical church in Abovyan, a city around half an hour outside of Yerevan, called Abovyan City Evangelical Church. Mission Eurasia had done training with some people from Vanadzor who were part of the same Armenian Evangelical association and President Rakhuba knew the local pastor, Vazgen Zohrabyan, from that.

When the bombings and attacks by Azerbaijan against Artsakh began on September 27, the church immediately announced on social media that it was open to help any refugee looking for a place to live and food. Zohrabyan did not expect what happened next, Parsons related. He got over 100 phone calls within the first 24 hours, which represented around 2,000 people, since the callers all had families.

This little church of only 200 or 300 people in Abovyan decided that it was not going to turn anyone away, though the pastor had no clue as to how he was going to take care of so many refugees. Parsons recalled during his first visit to Armenia that the pastor related the story of their attempting to prepare for so many people to be cared for and fed. It was the third week of October. Out of the blue, Rakhuba called the pastor and said his organization would like to come and help. The Abovyan pastor began to cry out of happiness.

Aid for the Artsakh refugees loaded up in a car at the Abovyan Church

In the end, the church did help 2,000 people in Abovyan and the surrounding communities. People stayed within the church building plus they found hotels and other places to host the refugees.

Humanitarian Aid

Other organizations also helped the Abovyan church. Samaritan’s Purse, a partner with Mission Eurasia, airlifted 50 tons of winter clothing, blankets and other winter supplies to Armenia in early November, some of which came to the church. Another shipment of blankets should be arriving soon to Armenia. Parsons explained that Mission Eurasia believes the crisis will extend for a long time, so though late in the season, the additional blankets will help not only for this year but the next.

Mission Eurasia raised funds through partners and purchased food in Armenia, Parsons said, which was boxed by volunteers in various cities. Many of the volunteers were themselves refugees from Artsakh while others were church members. Over 10,000 boxes of food assistance was prepared (over 160,000 tons of food). Each box will sustain a family of four for up to a month and also contain scriptural writings. Parsons said that some of the most needy areas where refugees are living were targeted for this assistance.

Packing boxes of aid

A new shipment arrived from Canada in early March in a 40-foot container with dried vegetables and soup packets. Parsons said that the last week he was in Armenia he and his team visited a shelter for some 50 refugees, which was a converted five-star hotel. The Armenian government subsidized the refugees’ housing but they were only given rice and noodles to eat. The new shipment of vegetables and other nutritious foods will be sent to them just in time.

Preparing aid boxes

Another type of aid Mission Eurasia is facilitating is bread through the establishment of five bakeries in different areas that will be established in conjunction with Armenian evangelical churches. Flat lavash bread will be provided to refugees either for cost or even for free, Parsons said. The bakeries are given the name “bread of life,” based on Jesus’ identification of himself with this term in the scriptures. While funds have been raised to establish five bakeries, it is taking time to set them up, Parsons said, but the first one should be running soon.

Bakery equipment being set up

Some medical aid is being provided also. During Parsons’ trips, he and his team visited some hospitals, which, especially in the villages, have great needs. A hospital in Germany that is renovating its facilities donated all its beds, bedding and equipment like wheelchairs. Mission Eurasia is trying to raise money for the shipping in order to bring these items to Armenia.

Samaritan’s Purse, working with the Armenian Ministry of Health, used the Abovyan church building to provide Artsakh refugees with initial health examinations, consultations and first aid from a team of doctors who had come from the US for this purpose on November 22.

During all this work, Mission Eurasia helped the local evangelical churches establish a nongovernmental organization in Armenia to facilitate the aid it was bringing, Parsons said.

There was no formal coordination with the Armenian government on aid, but Parsons said that all aid was provided through official channels so that the government knew what was going on. Whoever receives a food box has to sign a receipt for it. If a local church receives aid boxes to distribute, the boxes come with the seal of state authorization, and the church has to sign for them. The church also keeps tabs to see that refugee families only get as much as they need and not more.

Furthermore, on a local level, the local pastors have good informal relations with the mayors of their respective cities, especially in Vanadzor and Abovyan. In Abovyan, Parsons said, Mayor Vahagn Gevorgyan asked the church for help for refugees on various occasions, and later formally thanked him and his church for this.

Food to be distributed to the Artsakh refugees in Abovyan

Spiritual Work and Evangelism

Parsons made it clear that for Mission Eurasia, humanitarian aid against crises was combined wherever possible with spiritual, declaring: “We are trying to provide the physical aid and in every context that we work, we are trying to shine the light of Christ and share the hope of Christ in a hopeless situation.”

He did not want to speak ill of the Armenian Church and declared: “We always try to have good relationship with everyone we possibly can. … I know some of our partners on the ground have a very positive relationship with the Apostolic Church [of Armenia]. If God wants to work through the Apostolic Church I am very thankful for that. If God wants to work through the different brothers and sisters we are partnering with, praise the Lord for that too.”

On the other hand, Mission Eurasia’s website is more critical, stating: “Although Armenia is the world’s first officially Christian nation, the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church has become more of a cultural, rather than spiritual, institution. Most Armenians consider ‘Armenian’ and ‘Christian’ to be synonymous, but many of them have never even heard the gospel. In order to share the hope of Christ with the unreached, we are preparing our School Without Walls (SWW) students in Armenia for ministry in their own communities, transforming their schools, workplaces, and families with the gospel!”

It goes on to ask: “Please pray that God would grow the evangelical church in Armenia so that even more Armenians would realize that their nationality doesn’t make them real Christians, but rather, they must put their faith in Christ.”

Parsons said that as short-term visitors, he and his team were trying to make connections for the local Armenian national evangelical churches so that they in turn could follow up with more physical aid and spiritual assistance.

During his visits with Artsakh refugees, Parson said, he sometimes could speak Russian, as many people from Artsakh know that language, but his group generally also had an Armenian translator with them, who often was a local Armenian evangelical pastor. The group would bring food to a home and had religious literature available.

For the Armenian speakers, Parsons said, “If they wanted to talk with us – we didn’t force anything upon them – we would share from the word of God. Either the pastor would speak directly in Armenian, or he would say, would you share the word, to me, or to someone else on our team, and we would share and he would translate.”

Mission Eurasia is also printing Bibles now both for young children and for teenagers in Armenia.

Parsons did some training work at the SWW center in Vanadzor, that had been set up before the war, and in Abovyan. He said that Mission Eurasia was planning to set up new centers, including one in Yerevan in a few months. On his third trip to Armenia, he brought with him Alexandr Belev, the coordinator of the SWW program to help in this work.

Parsons said, “We are trying to increase the abilities and the skills that our team as well as our partners – and in this case it would be the [evangelical] church in Armenia, has to be able to deal with people who are struggling with post-traumatic stress and other kinds of traumatic issues. Primarily it will be a spiritual approach to those kinds of things. The training will include aspects of biblical counseling which is not just spiritual assistance and encouragement but a deeper approach to traumatic issues.”

He concluded: “Our purpose is always to provide physical assistance, provide hope and encourage people to look up to Christ in the midst of a crisis, in the midst of difficulties, in the midst of struggle. We have seen time and again, even in the short term, how that is effective.”

For more information, see https://missioneurasia.org/.

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