Refugees were fleeing their homes when James Jennings arrived in Romania near the Ukrainian and Moldovan border 10 days after the war with Russia began.
Many were women with children, and some had left their fathers or husbands who wanted to stay and fight, said Jennings, who lives in Gainesville and is the president of Conscience International.
He and his three-person team from his humanitarian organization spent two weeks in Moldova, Romania and Ukraine helping people cross the Danube River by ferry and providing blankets, food and other supplies to people in need.
“It came together very rapidly, because everybody was very enthused about helping,” Jennings said during an interview at The Times on Tuesday. “Now, whether they can maintain that over the long haul, that’s the real question. Can you keep it going for a period of time? Nobody knows the answer to that. Some of the people there were telling me they have burnout already.”
Conscience International, founded by Jennings in 1991, works with local churches, clinics and other organizations to provide care for those fleeing their homes in times of crisis. The organization has also helped build homes and schools in the aftermath of disasters, including homes in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, Jennings said.
Funding comes from donations and partnerships with local churches and other religious organizations, such as First Baptist Church in Gainesville.
Jennings has been to dangerous environments in the past, inclduing bombings in Beirut in 1982, conflict in the Gaza Strip in 1989 and the war in Iraq in the mid-2000s.
“The human cruelty and viciousness are the same in every war,” Jennings said. “And the human qualities of mercy and compassion are also there.”
Most of the group has returned, but Robert Smucker, who lives in Flowery Branch and works as an engineer for Conscience International, has remained in a city in western Ukraine where he has heard air raid sirens for five straight days.
After a long trip driving food, baby products, bedding and clothing to refugees near the border, Smucker and his team heard a distressing sound, he wrote in a message to Jennings Monday, March 28.
“While finishing unloading the last truck in Berezhany air sirens went off,” Smucker wrote. “We could hear rockets going overhead. It was overcast so we could not see the rockets but you most definitely could hear them. The mixture of the air raid sirens, and the rockets brought a sense of what is happening further south.”
He saw fewer refugees crossing into Romania lately, Smucker wrote, and many people, churches, hotels and a train station in Bucharest have allowed people to sleep in their facilities while the weather is still cold.
“All the refugees I’ve had a chance to talk with are women with children,” Smucker wrote. “(Their) husbands are staying back to fight, and they don’t want to go into another country without them or very far.”
Smucker plans to stay in Ukraine for a few more weeks, Jennings said.
Many refugees Jennings met were on their way west to Austria or Germany. But others wanted to wait in Romania near the border, Jennings said, so that they could head home once the conflict died down.
It remains unclear when many parts of Ukraine would be safe to return.
Russian leaders said Tuesday, March 29, they would scale back operations near Kyiv, and negotiations are ongoing, the Associated Press reported. An estimated 4 million Ukrainians have fled their homes after five weeks of war.
Jennings said one woman he met was pregnant with two children, and her husband died in the first week of the conflict, leaving her family with an uncertain future. He said her story was heartbreaking.
“We gave her money to support her for one month in the clinic where she was sleeping,” Jennings said. “You’ve got to ask what is the, kind of, long-term outcome of this?”
A 19-year-old woman he met was told by her family to leave home and get to safety.
“She got there and didn’t know what she was going to do or where she was going to live,” Jennings said. “She’s sitting in a church with 75 other people. That’s pretty terrible.”
We still could be near the beginning of this long-term conflict, Jennings said, fearing an escalation in violence.
If the war persists, Jennings said his group may return to the area, with hopes of bringing medical teams to local hospitals.
He said Conscience International continues to be guided by a simple message of, “If there’s something you know you should do, you have to do it.”