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How one Okaloosa man is providing aid to Ukrainian refugees

Where there is a disaster, you will likely find Kenny Phillips not too far away.

Since 2004, Phillips has rushed to the aid of people across the globe after earthquakes, hurricanes, refugee crises, and even in the midst of war through his small nonprofit Give Me Shelter Ministries.

In March, and then again in April, Phillips headed to Eastern Europe to help refugees fleeing Ukraine. He saw the devastation and desperate people leaving their homes with whatever they could carry.

It’s an experience that’s been hard to process, said Phillips.

“What you see on television — I don’t care what outlet you want to watch — the pictures and the video they’re showing — that’s real, that’s happening," he said. "For once, in a long time, all of our media people got it right.”

Phillips has a “boots-on-the-ground approach” to his work. It helps him get a better sense of what the needs are and where to put his resources.

“We kind of go in and beat the bush down (and) try to make a connection with a church with a social worker, maybe a doctor, someone who’s working in that area who knows what’s happening, and try to get plugged in there,” he said.

On his first trip, Phillips went to Romania and Moldova where he met a man he refers to on his mission blog as Pastor Adi. Pastor Adi paused services at his church to help refugees.

“I said 'What does your church think about this?' And he goes ‘the Sunday before all of this happened, we knew it was coming, I told them (the congregation) I said we’re not doing church here anymore. Don’t come here because I’m not going to be here. We need to be out there helping these people seven days a week.’”

That’s all it took for Phillips to know he was in the right place.

“And I thought to myself, ‘This is the cat I can work with, man. This guy gets it, man. He sees it.”

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Phillips joined volunteers in getting refugees anything they needed for their destinations, whether it was a suitcase to hold their belongings or a ride in a vehicle. He met a woman, who was 32 weeks pregnant, and whose husband was already killed in battle.

Toward the beginning of the war, Phillips noticed many of the refugees had nice cars and clothes. These were the people with the means to leave. Months into the war, he saw the demographics change.

Phillips called them the “forsaken ones.”

“These are the people that are in dire straits,” he said. “That’s the tough ones right there because they don’t have the resources, they don’t have places to go. They just want to get out of the country.”

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Kenny Phillips and Pastor Adi.

With Pastor Adi, Phillips helped set up a resource center for refugees who would be staying in Romania and starting over. The center would help them get adjusted to their new country.

“They can have opportunities to learn a little bit of crash course about Romania, the language and to assist and help finding some jobs assisting with helping them finding a place to live and just helping them get assimilated into the Romanian culture,” said Phillips. “This person has just left everything they know. (We) don’t know what happened to the husband, he probably stayed back to fight and there’s probably a good chance she’s never going to see her husband again. And so, she’s coming into a new world, a new life.”

Phillips saw people waiting in long lines to cross the border to and from Ukraine. Some even went back to their home country to join the fight.

“Probably the most common sight that I saw was a woman with a child in one arm, a plastic bag full of whatever wrapped around the other, and behind them was a toddler pulling a suitcase or something,” Phillips recalled.

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Phillips recalls one of the “coldest days of his life” as he watched people wait in those lines.

“It was snowing like crazy and even the drivers that were able to drive across, I mean, they spent hours and hours and hours in lines to even move a block,” he said. “The conditions were horrible, snow was just … it was constantly snowing off and on, the ones that were walking, they’re walking for days and days through snow and it’s just incredible.”

When he returned to Romania in April, the big priority was supporting the Ukrainian soldiers. Phillips was able to visit an underground warehouse and purchase supplies with donations to his ministry.

“There’s a pipeline for getting medical supplies to the Ukraine soldiers to help patch them up, which is what they’re having a hard time doing,” he said. “What they do is they send out these lists of what’s needed at that particular time, so Give Me Shelter ministries was able to fit in about $2,000 worth of medical supplies.”

Over the two trips, Phillips made connections with people he continues to think about. One was a Ukrainian merchant marine, Valeriy Bykov, whose family’s village was destroyed. Bykov was trying to collect enough money to get his family out of Ukraine.

He told Phillips “we’re going to get through this thing and we’re going to win this war.” But Phillips has not been able to contact him since his trip in April.

It’s one of the hard parts of this work — wondering what happens after you leave.

“I don’t really know where else to turn to because I just had his contact and we do have his brother’s contact but we’ve not been able to touch bases so, I don’t know,” said Phillips. “I guess the end stories are … sometimes we don’t get that opportunity to see.”