My last visit to Donetsk, Ukraine happened at the end of January 2014, soon after the former government of Ukraine tried to violently subdue the pro-democratic protests (known as the “Maidan”) in Kiev. Compared to the scenes from the Ukrainian capital, Donetsk, the bastion of pro-Russian oligarchs, was relatively quiet. There were a few small street demonstrations but those were quickly and brutally dispersed by local thugs hired to do the dirty job for the government. In fact, on my way from the airport, Nick, one of our reps on Donetsk, showed me a blood-stained snow on a sidewalk in the center of the city, where a day earlier a small group of citizens was attacked and beat up, just for showing their support for a closer association of Ukraine with the EU.
Despite the relative calm, there was something ominous in the air that week. As I set down with our staff to discuss our future plans, we ran through a number of scenarios that could happen. When it came to the most depressing one – the possibility of the eastern Ukraine being torn away from the rest of the country, the response from the Ukrainians was: “It won’t happen – Russians are our brothers and would never do that.” The worst they expected was more protests but eventual return to the “in the middle” status with Ukraine balancing between the East and the West.
The next 12 months proved and exceeded some of our worst predictions. The situation in Donetsk grew more and more violent and eventually turned to a full-scale war. The region of Donbass, formerly the “Bible Belt” of Ukraine, suddenly became a very dangerous place for anyone with ties to the West. All non-Russian Orthodox religions faced various degrees of persecution – from intimidation, to arrests, beatings, and property seizures. No one, who tried to think or live differently from the “traditional Russian way” could feel safe. In the summer of 2014 our entire staff needed to evacuate on a moment’s notice, only being able to take what fit in their cars. They were warned not to return lest they be arrested on suspicion of spying for the “Western-backed Nazis” (as the Russian propaganda calls anyone who supported the pro-EU government).
This created a huge problem for EEM and our mission of sharing God’s Word. After all, Ukraine accounted for nearly 60% of our total distribution and the majority of the materials went to churches in the Donetsk region. Suddenly, we could no longer print, receive, or ship books from our main warehouse there to our key partners. Our files, computers, contacts, were all inaccessible. Imagine a business, which suddenly loses the majority of its customer base and much of its inventory – how likely would it be able to pull through and survive such a crisis? I am here to report to you that through God’s grace and power, not only did EEM pull through and survived, but after nearly 18 months from that fateful day, God has opened new doors for us and we are able to do way more than we have ever done before!
After evacuating our staff from Donetsk, we established a temporary base in Zaporozhye (in part, to coordinate our delivery to schools in that region) and eventually, in January 2015, moved to Vishneve near Kiev, establishing our new Ukrainian headquarters there. Through much sacrifice and taking many personal risks, our staff was able to evacuate our records, computers, and most of our inventory from Donetsk (there were a few close calls with our representatives questioned by the Russian proxies). We re-established our contacts with churches and began distributing Bibles to them again (in fact, in the entire 24-month period there was only 1 month when we didn’t ship at all – amazing!). Being in Kiev allowed to us meet new people and strengthen our ties with the Ministry of Education of Ukraine allowing us to expand our distribution of Bibles to schools. We have become an official partner with the Ministry of Education in their Christian Ethics in public schools program. We also began training teachers of Christian Ethics (in cooperation with Character International), which has been a long-time dream of ours.
At the same time, troubles in Ukraine encouraged us to look at other places in Eastern and Central Europe that might want the Bibles. Over the last 12 months, we began distributing Bibles to schools in Romania and Croatia, thanks to new strategic partnerships we formed with local churches and organizations (we are especially thankful to the Bible Institute in Zagreb for opening the door to schools and kindergartens to us). We began working closer with our partners in Athens, Greece to reach out to the refugees and immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe who live there (over 1 million of them).
Over and over again, God opened new door for EEM and challenged us to enter them boldly and faithfully. Thanks to the tireless work of our development team and generosity of our supporters, God’s work in Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe never stopped – in fact, continued to grow!
Here are a few statistics to bear out what happened in 2015. In Ukraine, our “regular” distribution (i.e. not including our special programs to schools) grew by 8.4% compared to 2014 to the total of 118,426 copies of Bibles and biblical materials. While we still have a bit to catch up to the pre-conflict levels of 2013, we are well on our way to get there and with God’s help, can achieve that in 2016.
Within EU, our work grew by 12% to 106,502 of Bibles and biblical materials distributed. Overall, our “regular” distribution totaled 268,121 copies of literature, a 4% growth over 2014, and out best year of yet! Including the Million Dollar Projects that have been accounted for in 2015, EEM has distributed the total of 420,402 copies of Bibles and biblical literature – which is our second best year in history!
Our efforts to “diversify” our activity also paid off. Whereas in 2013, over 63% of all EEM materials were distributed in Ukraine alone, this number is now at 28% with the total within 10% of the pre-conflict levels. Our distribution within EU countries counts for 25%, Russia for 10% and the remaining 37% is for special projects (Million Dollar Sunday).
Language-wise, Russian was still the largest language constituting over 40% of all materials. 29% of our distributed materials were in Ukrainian and 14% in Romanian.
One of the metrics that EEM tracks is breakdown of our distribution by type of literature according to their production value (to account for the fact that small evangelistic pamphlets can be distributed in large quantity but don’t take a lot of resources to produce). According to that metric, 77% of our distribution was for Bibles and Children Bibles.
We are thankful for the good opportunities that the Lord afforded to EEM in 2015. Beyond the numbers, there is a large number of thank you letters, stories, and most importantly people, whose lives were touched, improved, and changed through God’s Word. By providing God’s Word to churches free of charge, EEM allows them to use their resources (always scarce!) to be used on reaching out to people. We look forward to doing that, and more in 2016!
Vice President of European Operations