A Lausanne staff member and her husband share their story of fleeing Belarus and Ukraine, and starting a church plant for refugees in Poland.
Early one December morning in 2021, Zmicier and Anna Chviedaruk woke to loud knocking and shouting at the door. The Belarusian police had come.
“It was like in the movies, with armed guys holding shields and guns, shouting ‘Lie on the floor!’” says Zmicier.
The police beat Zmicier, pilfered through their belongings, and took him away. In the car, they used a taser to force him to record a video saying the police were polite to him.
“He was sentenced to 15 days in jail,” says Anna. “But we were not sure if he would be able to get out of there.”
An hour after Zmicier was taken away, Anna learned she was pregnant with their first child. It was the beginning of a harrowing months-long journey that would take the couple from Belarus to Ukraine—at the outbreak of war—and finally to Poland.
The Bloody Pastor
Anna and Zmicier are from Belarus, where “Europe’s last dictator,” Alexander Lukashenko, has been in power since 1994. Starting in 2020 when Lukashenko controversially won the election yet again, thousands of people in Belarus have been arrested and politically persecuted on the streets and in their own houses.
“People in Belarus live with the reality that you could be arrested for posting [on social media] or saying anything,” says Anna.
The Chviedaruks were targeted because of Zmicier’s two previous detentions in 2020, first for speaking up about the falsifications at the poll station, and then for participating in a protest with other Christians against the violence in Belarus. In addition, because of his previous involvement in the opposition movement, there was the possibility that he would be put under criminal investigation.
During the next 15 days, Zmicier lived with twenty other men in a small cell built for four. “The conditions in the police detention center were horrible,” he says. “Like a concentration camp, basically.”
Sleeping on the floor was like “playing Tetris,” and the guards roughly woke the inmates every two or three hours during the night as a form of torture. Most people were in their 30s like Zmicier, but some were elderly.
Despite the terrible circumstances, the men in Zmicier’s cell developed a close bond, taking turns giving lectures on topics like physics and history and even playing the game Mafia. “It was easier to survive and get through difficulties because despite the bad conditions, we were together trying to help each other, united by the same values,” remembers Zmicier.
As a pastor and a long-distance student at the Evangelical Reformed Seminary of Ukraine, Zmicier found himself to be the only Christian in the group.
“I thought the people would be so desperate that they wouldn’t want to talk about Christianity, but they actually had lots of questions,” says Zmicier. They had many discussions on the Christian faith—on the Trinity, and Christmas, which was just around the corner. “Even after being released, we still keep in touch.”
“In the cell they were calling him the Bloody Pastor,” says Anna with a laugh, “because he was answering all their questions about Christianity but was also really good at Mafia.”
Zmicier was thankfully released on December 23. When he came home, church members encouraged the couple to leave the country. With Zmicier’s history of detainment, they wouldn’t be left alone.
They fled to Kyiv, Ukraine, on the first day of 2022, thinking they had found refuge, and with plans to return to Belarus in a few months. But by February, there were rumors of impending war. Russian troops began to come into Ukraine, and the president of the seminary where Zmicier studies was told to leave the country.
As tensions continued to escalate and with a baby on the way, Zmicier and Anna left Kyiv and went to Warsaw, Poland, on 14 February, Valentine’s Day.
A Church for Eastern European Refugees
“It’s hard to think that about yourself, that you’re a refugee—but I guess that’s what we are,” says Anna.
Life in Poland is difficult for the Chviedaruks and other Belarusians and Ukrainians. Not knowing the language, being in a country with higher costs of living, and lacking community are all challenges they must face daily.
But they have also found help and support in the global church. Church communities and friends in Minsk, Kyiv, Poland, and around the world have all helped raise funds, provide temporary housing, assist with visas, and intercede in prayer for the Chviedaruks.
“The global church community took care of us a lot in this transition, and we were able to figure out how to establish a living here,” says Anna, who is a staff member of the Lausanne Movement.
In Poland, Zmicier and Anna were first involved in helping refugees from Belarus and Ukraine come to Warsaw. Zmicier also worked for a while as a journalist to help ends meet, covering news from Eastern Europe.
But he began to see the need for a church among the refugees in Poland and soon quit to enter full-time ministry. He is now in the midst of working on a church plant, together with a missionary friend and his pastor from Minsk, who are also in Warsaw.
Zmicier and the church planting team envision a church that can be a gospel-centered fellowship and community for Russian-speaking Eastern Europeans in Warsaw. The few Polish-speaking churches in the city are difficult for Eastern Europeans to attend, due to language and cultural barriers, and Russian-speaking evangelical churches are hard to find in a historically Catholic country.
Zmicier desires to plant a church in Warsaw for several reasons—first, to minister to the unique experiences of refugees and relocates like themselves. Many share similar traumatic stories of imprisonment, torture, and loss.
Second, for gospel-centered community. The church will be in Russian, the lingua franca of the Eastern European region, so it will be attended by people from various nations, like Belarus and Ukraine, who want to be members of a Russian-speaking church. While many Ukrainians and Belarusians prefer their own languages, Russian remains the one language understood by many.
“It will be interesting to see how this community will be built up between all kinds of nationalities,” says Anna. “There’s are some political tensions between Belarusians and Ukrainians, for example. It’s interesting to see what the Lord will do.”
Third, for evangelism. Difficulties, chaos, and suffering have started a process of reflection for many of the non-Christian refugees in Warsaw.
“For example, rich or well-educated people in their average life in Belarus think of themselves as self-made men, successful, etc.,” says Zmicier. “But once you see that life is more difficult and complicated, then it makes some people rethink lots of things.”