This is a story the world needs to hear. This will change your perspective on war, on politics, on religion, maybe even what you think about yourself.
It was 2021. Our youth group was meeting on a Sunday morning just like any other week. The youth minister made an announcement. “At the end of the summer, we’re going on a mission trip to Croatia. If you’re interested, let me know.” From the start, I knew I wanted to go. The idea of adventure in a different country pulled me in. We had a few meetings, and we all thought we were prepared.
A news bulletin came. “Russia is lining its troops on the Ukraine border. It probably won’t escalate into armed conflict.” We were worrying about the trip. “If something happens and the war affects Croatia,” my youth minister said, “We can get a refund from our airline.” We stopped worrying so much.
June 2022. “There will be some Ukrainian Refugees there.” Ok.
We started learning a song, something we could all sing as a group. A worship song called “Waymaker”. We learned the whole thing in English, then in Croatian. We were excited.
July. The time had finally come. We boarded a 787 and flew to Zagreb, Croatia. The plan was: Spend a week with the Croatian teens, and the people in charge would teach about how to grow closer to God.
We boarded the bus that would take us to the place we were going to have the retreat. “Sit with someone you’ve never met” were the instructions. I sat next to a teenager who’s name I could barely pronounce. We eventually started talking about video games and I asked him if he had ever played Super Smash Bros. He said no. I pulled out my Nintendo Switch and I taught him the basics. We were having a great time; I almost didn’t notice when arrived at our destination.
Once we had settled in, we learned what our week was going to look like. Every day we would wake up, eat breakfast, and have a session of learning and worship as a group. Then we would split off into small groups and discuss what we had learned. We would eat lunch, have another small group time, then free time until dinner. Our evenings were very similar, with more learning, more small group time, then free time until we went to bed.
It was lunchtime on the first day. That was the first time I noticed the refugees. All of the age of about 12 or 13, they just sat at a table by themselves, all eight of them, clinging to their caretaker the whole time. They all looked sad and malnourished, and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them.
In our free time, a few of us had gone into our common room and had connected a Switch to the projector. The other guys and I had ours out and weren’t really using them. In small European countries, no one really has a Switch, and so it was a novelty for most of the people there. Someone saw one of the refugees looking at the Switch and offered it to him. His eyes lit up at the sight. None of the refugees spoke any English, and this was the first interaction any of the Americans at the retreat had attempted. They loved it. They tried out all the games on everyone’s consoles. They were having the most fun they had seen in weeks.
The next day, I was in my small group. The six of us were talking when the door opened. In walked one of the refugees. He sat and watched us for a while, until one of the Croatians thought to hand him his phone. He sat there playing Five Night’s at Freddy’s the rest of the time we were in the group.
At lunch, he sat at our table. He didn’t really understand what was going on, but I think we all felt we had become friends even through the language barrier. I looked over at the table where the Ukrainians had been sitting, and fewer people were there.
The refugees’ guardian talked about what they had been through. She didn’t go into the specifics, but the tears in her eyes showed she was truly heartbroken about the pain the refugees had seen.
Every time we went into small group discussion, the refugee would come in when we were about halfway through. One day, he played a game on my Switch. The next day, he played a horror game on one of the Croatian’s phones. Long after our discussion time was over, he and the Croatian who had loaned him the phone sat there taking turns trying to beat the game.
One day at mealtime, I looked over at the table the Ukrainians had been sitting at. It was empty. The translator was eating with the other adults. The Ukrainians were sitting all around the room, hanging out with the Americans and the Croatians.
The night before our retreat was supposed to end, we were going to have a time to worship God. It was time to sing the song we had been practicing for so many months. “Hang on” my youth minister suddenly announced, “before we start, I wanted to let you know we’ll be singing in Ukrainian as well as Croatian and English. Before we start, let’s go over the lyrics once.” Our American mouths tripped over weirdly placed consonants and syllables we had never seen. The Croatians were doing a lot better. Oh well, it was time to start. The guitar started, the drum came in, and we started singing. It was a song to worship God, and in that moment, it felt so powerful, so uplifting, so real. For the first time in my life, I didn’t just believe in God, I felt he was there, changing the lives of the people in the room. The chorus goes:
Light in the darkness,
My God, that is who you are
We sang every verse in all three languages, probably five times each. I looked around, and every face in the room was smiling, and singing as joyfully as possible. I will forever believe God was in the room that day.
Sadly, the retreat had to come to an end. We got on the bus to leave, and everyone felt so much closer to me than they had at the start. The refugee my group had befriended sat next to me, and he tried out all the games on my phone. Minecraft, SimplePlanes, Tetris, some car driving game I don’t even remember the name of. I don’t know how it is possible to grow so close to someone who doesn’t speak a word of your language, but in that, moment, we felt like the closest of friends.
That night, we were at a little hotel. It was just our group from America. We sat in a circle, and we talked about what had happened that week. We went around one by one, and each member of the group shared what their biggest memory of the trip. One person mentioned how video games helped us connect with the Ukrainians, and that was all it took. I started crying. I cried for the Ukrainians. I cried for the war. I cried for the people who’s lives had been changed on that trip, especially myself. I felt so sad, so overwhelmed. I kind of pulled it together. I think I hugged everyone that day. It was in that moment that what a change we had made in all those lives, especially my own, really hit me. And then we walked to a little bakery. My friends bought me a chocolate muffin. I sat down and I thought. Nothing would be the same for me.
All because of the Ukrainian orphan who loved video games.
I don’t think this story needs much explanation. We need to end the war. It’s easy for us to say “Stand with Ukraine” or something like that. I’ll be honest though; I don’t think that really matters. I want there to be no more children orphaned, no more soldiers killed, no more accidental civilian deaths, no more violence. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. Please feel free to comment.
Thank you for reading.