A woman from Eastern Ukraine is shown with her daughter and granddaughter in the shelter. Provided photo
A woman from Eastern Ukraine is shown with her daughter and granddaughter in the shelter. Provided photo
You never really get used to hearing an air raid siren.

From its piercing wail in the beginning to the way it trails off at the end, the repeating sound can echo throughout a city for miles, leaving those within earshot in a constant state of worry or confusion.

No, you never really get used to hearing an air raid siren.

But Michael and Michelle Pratt have just learned to live with it now.

The Pratts are Indiana missionaries who have spent nearly 30 years in Ukraine — the past 13 of which they’ve spent in Lviv — and they noted that they had heard the rumors as early as last fall about a possible invasion of the country by Russian forces.

They just didn’t want to believe it, of course, even though Michael — born and raised in Kokomo — had already been preparing his church and its members over there for weeks.

They had even turned a half-basement in a nearby office building into a refugee shelter, complete with an industrial kitchen, mattresses and a shower area.

As for Michelle, she was so sure that an invasion wouldn’t actually happen that she unpacked a previously packed bag.

But then came Feb. 24, 2022.

It was a typical Thursday morning, the Pratts told the Tribune during a recent phone interview from Lviv.

That is, until it wasn’t.

“I guess it was just pure shock to begin with,” Michelle said. “Nobody really thought it would be like this. That morning when it all started, I got up at 5 (a.m.) and was the only one awake. And then when Mike got up around 6 (a.m.), that’s when we started calling all the family here in Ukraine.”

‘WE CALL THEM GUESTS’

That same day, Michelle left for Poland with the couple’s daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren.

There are people who can stay calm in the midst of air raid sirens and cruise missile warnings, and there are those that can’t, the couple noted.

Michelle said she quickly learned she was the latter.

Michael stayed behind though, along with the couple’s son and daughter-in-law.

He admitted that he knew the newly-built shelter would soon be needed, and he felt compelled in his mission to help as many of his “neighbors” as possible.

“We put the word out on social media that we had shelter,” Michael said, “and then all of our phones that we had connected to the shelter started ringing. Social media notifications were going off. For the whole first week, in fact, I didn’t sleep because I’d get calls in the middle of the night. People were desperate.”

And people came in droves too.

By the time the Tribune caught up with Michael, the shelter had already been in operation for several days, housing around 600 people and providing over 3,000 meals.

“We have 25 beds,” Michael said. “They first started coming a little bit on day two of the war. Day two, I think we had 10 to 12 people, maybe 15. By day three, it was full. Many people would just stay with us for a night or two while they rested on their way out of the country. We always want people to feel welcome, safe, loved and accepted. They’re not refugees to us. We call them guests.”

And those guests would often volunteer their time and talents back to the shelter, Michael added, whether it was through performing tasks such as electrical work or simply cooking meals.

“The beautiful thing about it all is that the things that often separate us in life, they’re gone,” Michael said, referring to life inside the shelter. “There is no race. There is no language. There is no religious barrier. There is no economic barrier.

“When we realize that all of the things that we think are so important to living are suddenly gone, all we have left is a choice to either love one another and help or to run away,” he continued. “And people respond to love. People respond to that unconditional and gracious love. That’s what everybody wants and needs. So, when those boundaries that make that love conditional are gone, beautiful things happen.”

Michael then took a few minutes to describe what he meant when he used the phrase “beautiful things,” referring at times to the shelter as a “community.”

‘ATMOSPHERE OF PEACE’

“Every area of their (guests’) life is met,” he said. “The children there, we had special things for them like toys. One woman provided trauma exercise. We had kids draw and paint things so they could express what they were going through. We had a medical doctor come in and take care of people’s medical needs. There wasn’t one need that wasn’t being met.”

And what resulted from those needs was an overwhelming sense of appreciation — from both sides — Michael noted, even when the outside world was turned upside down.

“It just created an atmosphere of peace and calm,” he said. “They (guests) didn’t know us. They didn’t know who we were. They didn’t even know we were a church in many cases. But what they did see was the level of care that they were receiving, and that was all they needed to see.”

And then there were also the countless stories of resolve and survival that Michael would hear from those who stayed at the facility, from orphaned teens surviving Russian cruise missile attacks in an abandoned subway station to young twin girls believing they would one day return to homes that looked just like how they left them.

Each of those stories was unique and powerful, Michael noted, and a constant reminder of just how fragile life really is.

Michael and the rest of the volunteer staff ended up closing the shelter in early-June due to the lack of urgent need, but he said there’s not a day that goes by that he doesn’t think about the lessons that were taught and learned there.

Lessons about life and about determination, about friendship and compassion.

“There are a lot (of lessons) that I’m learning that are still in the developmental stage,” he said. “But the things that ultimately divide us, that cause us to fight and argue, the ugliness that comes from all those things that we think are so important, they’re really not. We’re harming others other than helping ourselves. And I will never give up on the dream that we can continue to grow as people and learn to live in love. That’s one of the things that the shelter has taught me.”

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