A church in San Diego’s South Bay has become a hub for Ukrainian refugees let into the U.S. at the San Ysidro Port of Entry.
Calvary Church San Diego pastor Aaron Szloboda gathers his new-found flock for the next leg of their U.S. journey.
“This is one of my favorite phrases, this is what they say. ‘I have never been to America before in my life. I didn’t realize how much you loved us,’” Szloboda said.
Szloboda says what started out six days ago as a few refugees on the Telegram app telling others they made it to the U.S. grew to a conversation between 14,000 people trying to do the same thing.
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He anticipates encampments seen near border in Mexico are only the beginning. Many refugees say they’re unwilling to find other shelter because they fear losing their place in line.
Calvary Church says that such refugee camps attract human smugglers who might offer to take people over the border for a lot of money but then never follow through.
The church has volunteers on both sides helping refugees. Despite that, the average time it takes Ukrainians to get from the Tijuana airport to Calvary Church is about 30 hours, according to Szloboda.
“What they are getting here is a meal, something to drink, and time to be safe and relaxed,” he said.
After that the church connects refugees with a network of host families, most of whom are church members.
A man named Russ, a Ukrainian who belongs to Potter’s House Church in Sacramento, is likely their next helping hand.
“I see a lot of moms, a lot of kids from my country. Who is helping these guys?” Russ said.
Russ has made five trips back and forth to Sacramento this week shepherding refugees to families there. He’s paying back a favor he received 20 years ago when he emigrated here.
“I’m tired, but when I am [sic] coming here, Jesus and you guys helped me,” he said .
It’s a labor of love, and for pastor Szloboda, a devotion he mustn’t ignore.
“When we see a need and we have the ability to help, it would be a sin for us not to help,” he said.