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Christians make way to Huntsville, aim to find homes for Kiev orphans

May 5, 2006, 0:00 5436 Author: Yvonne Betowt, yvonneb at htimes.com The Huntsville Times

Ripped from her home by war, 25-year-old Olga Kholodenina sat in a Ukrainian train station in 1990, wondering what cruel twists life would bring her next.

She held no crystal ball - only hope and a train ticket from Kiev to Moscow.

She had no idea that Kiev was where she would complete her education, get married and start an orphanage.

And she never imagined fate would bring her to Huntsville, where she now helps American families adopt many of the children from her Christian orphanage and other orphanages in the Ukraine.

"It's all because of prayer," said Olga, the daughter of an atheist father and a mother who became a Christian in 1968. The mother and the children worshiped at an underground Baptist church in their hometown of Baku, Azerbaijan, even though practicing their faith was forbidden by law.

When Soviet troops killed 190 nationalist demonstrators in Baku in January 1990, Olga and her younger sister, Marina, fled to a nearby military base. They escaped with 200 other refugees on a cargo plane. After eight long hours without food and drink, the refugees found safe harbor in Kiev.

"I had always dreamed of going to Kiev, but I had no idea my first visit would be as a political refugee," Olga said. "We bought our ticket (for Moscow), but we had about five hours before the train would be there so we decided to look around the city."

'Miracle from God'

Underdressed and shivering on the streets of Kiev, the sisters met two women - the wives of Soviet generals - who were preparing to enroll their daughters in a nearby college. "They invited us to come along," Olga said.

But Olga, who had earned a physician's assistant degree before entering the university in Baku, had left her hometown with none of her college transcripts. She was only months from graduating, and feared she may have to start college anew.

Olga and Marina joined the women and their daughters for the short walk, and were greeted by the university president.

Thinking Olga and Marina were part of the military families, he apologized for not having their names. He then issued student ID cards, and had someone take them to a resort-like house where faculty lived. The other women's daughters were taken to the regular dormitory.

"It was just a miracle from God," Olga said, wiping away tears as she recalled the harrowing few days she and her sister, a freshman, had endured. "They took care of everything for us."

Their parents had no idea where Olga and Marina were because war had shut down phone, mail and media outlets. It was two months before the girls contacted their parents.

"My mother was praying that God would protect us and provide for us," said Olga, who graduated from the Kiev university in May 1990, just five months after arriving. "Even my dad was praying for us."

Refused to deny belief

Olga's father did not believe in God and once reported his wife and children to the Baku authorities for their beliefs. But they told him as long as they weren't witnessing to people outside the home, it was OK.

"It was very difficult," Olga said, pausing as tears welled in her eyes. "My great uncle was put into prison for 10 years for being a Christian, and I was persecuted because of my beliefs and feared for my life."

Although an excellent student in high school, Olga was told she could not take the college entrance test because she refused to sign a document saying she didn't believe in God.

"I just could not do it," she said. "Even my pastor told me I would never be allowed to enter college."

"They brainwashed you from the first grade," her husband, Vasyl Vatsyk, said. "You were politically incorrect if you did not follow the others."

On the last day of registration to take the college entrance test, Olga decided to turn in her application. She ran into the head of the university, apologized profusely for being late with her application and handed it to him.

She held her breath as he looked at the papers. He stamped his OK for her to take the test. She scored a high mark and became the only known Christian in the college when she enrolled in 1985.

In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed with the fall of communism, and people were free to worship openly. But no Christian literature was available and few Bibles existed.

The Baptist Union in Kiev started a school and asked Olga to teach Christian psychology since she was the only Christian child psychologist in Ukraine. She also wrote two books on Christian education, which many churches in Ukraine still use.

She was also invited to teach Bible ethics in the public schools.

"One day you are having to worship in secret, and the next day you are in high demand (to teach the Bible)," Olga said. "It was unbelievable. God changed everything."

She enrolled in the Baptist college so she could train to teach Christian education classes. Meanwhile, she was staying busy helping orphaned and homeless children and refugees coming to Kiev.

Meanwhile, Vasyl Vatsyk, a Pentecostal Christian living in Zarecha, Ukraine - a 16-hour train trip from Kiev - felt called into the ministry. He enrolled at St. James Bible College in Kiev where Olga was taking classes to become a teacher.

They eventually became friends and study partners. Vasyl felt God led him to Olga to marry, but it took Olga a little while longer to get the same message.

Finally, after much persistence and many love letters and poems by Vasyl, Olga accepted his proposal. They graduated in June 1995 and married Sept. 10, 1995. They went on a "honeymoon" mission trip to Siberia.

Led to Huntsville

Jan Lindberg of Madison, was a visiting instructor at St. James Bible School in 1994. Vasyl and Olga were in her class but had not yet met each other. When she returned in 1995, she learned of their budding romance.

Lindberg was instrumental in helping Vasyl's then 14-year-old nephew, Kolya, come to Huntsville in 1999 to get hormone growth treatments. Kolya's family eventually moved to Huntsville, where Kolya, who changed his name to Nick, graduated from Grissom High School.

In Kiev, Vasyl and Olga were starting a Christian orphanage and organizing Christian summer day camps for children - something unheard of in the former Soviet Union.

"We took the older orphans for a Christian summer camp for two weeks and taught them God's love," said Vasyl, who often took orphans to his and Olga's home for the weekend. "Some had no idea about a home, and we would take them and bathe and feed them and take them to church."

With the help of Lindberg and her husband, Perry, Olga and Vasyl began helping American couples adopt some of the orphans through their Helping Hands ministry. Now more than 150 of the former orphans live in the United States, including several in the Huntsville area.

The Lindbergs twice paid for Vasyl, who spoke very little English, to take an intense English course at Gadsden State Community College. Olga, who spoke fluent English, joined her husband on the second trip.

"They are like a spiritual son and daughter to us," Jan Lindberg said. "Olga is probably God's gift of mercy in the flesh. She reaches out to the down and out. There is a depth to her no American could ever tap into."

"We are privileged to be part of their ministry," Lindberg said. "I can't imagine where I'd be today if God had not put us together."

After returning to Kiev, the Vatsyks decided to join the rest of his family in Huntsville with the idea of raising money for the Kiev orphanage as well as helping American couples adopt Ukrainian children.

They and their son, Tymofiy (the Ukrainian spelling of Timothy), and Pekingese Leo Chan, arrived in the United States in October 2004.

The family attends a Ukrainian church in Huntsville which meets at the College Park Church of God. Vasyl, a field inspector for Bayside Roofing Company in Mobile, is the assistant pastor. Their son, now 7, attends Weatherly Elementary School, where Olga volunteers some of her time.

"We believe it is what God wanted," Olga said. "We hope to maybe start a ministry here and maybe do adoptions. We know the need (in Kiev) is so great. We are ready to see how God will use us. We are so grateful for everyone who has helped us."

Olga and Vasyl Vatsyk of Huntsville hope to continue the Helping Hands Ministry they founded in Kiev, Ukraine, here. They started a Christian orphanage in Kiev and are collecting clothes, toys and personal hygiene items to send to the children.

Donations are also accepted, but the Vatsyks do not have a non-profit status yet for their ministry. They are also available to help start the paperwork for adoption proceedings for orphans in Ukraine. For more information, call 882-9042 or e-mail zirka73 at hotmail.com.

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