Youth Ministry to Ukrainian Refugees in Prague
Nineteen-year-old Olena’s mother took it upon herself to call the leaders of the Thursday night youth group. Ever since she and her daughter fled Ukraine after the conflict began in 2022, they had lived in Prague but still had neither friends nor a strong social network to support them. When Olena’s mother heard about the Christian ministry to teenagers called “Meet me @ Svitlo,” she knew it would offer something her daughter desperately needed.
The Prague Hub, an initiative of GEM focused on ministering to displaced Ukrainians, started Meet Me @ Svitlo specifically to reach Ukrainian teens who had fled their homeland and were struggling to make a new place for themselves in Prague. The Svitlo organization lent out its space for free to organizations aiding Ukrainian refugees. Svitlo, meaning “light,” offered the perfect space for Thursday night youth group.
The Meet Me @ Svitlo team knows that all teenagers, especially those who leave their homeland behind under stressful circumstances, are vulnerable. The Ukrainian teens need to form strong and healthy relationships in a community that supports good values. Using the catchphrase, “Be a light to each other,” youth leaders seek to encourage young people to build each other up in the Christian faith.
Olena’s mother asked that her daughter be signed up for the youth group. Fair-haired and somewhat frail-looking, Olena was extremely shy. Her mother feared that unless she took action on her behalf, Olena would never step out of her comfort zone to attend the meetings.
Olena’s mother couldn’t guarantee that her daughter would even stay until the end of her first meeting. So, it came as a shock to her when not only did Olena agree to attend a party at Meet Me @ Svitlo, but she came home afterwards, smiling and chatting about the new friends she made there.
Since that first party, Olena has never missed an event with the youth group. She had been terribly lonely. She found it difficult to make new friends at her Czech school, and because her Ukrainian friends accused her of betraying them when she fled Ukraine with her mother, she hadn’t kept in touch with them.
“But I finally found friends here!” Olena told the youth leaders. “I feel that people accept me here.” Olena has been moved by the discussions about truth at the youth group. She said these discussions have “turned her thoughts upside down,” and she is pondering spiritual things very seriously.
Maria first came to Meet Me @ Svitlo wearing her dark hoodie pulled all the way up, as if to hide her face. Looking older than her sixteen years, she maintained a physical distance from the others at first. She spoke to no one. Eventually, she shared she had problems communicating with her classmates.
Maria confessed she found it hard to begin interacting with other teens in the youth group. But every week, Maria began to come out of her shell just a little bit more. Now she is blooming! She laughs aloud and makes an effort to speak to others. Maria enjoys coming to a place where she feels people actually like her.
The youth leaders want Maria to feel the light of Christ from other teens who accept and love her.
Oleg came from the opposite side of Ukraine from Olena and Maria. He attended the youth group by accident one evening after seeing an advertisement. The festive atmosphere appealed to him. The large room had been strung with fairy lights, and all around him teenagers laughed and chatted, munching on snacks as they sat on a cushion-strewn floor.
Oleg decided to stay. He returned again and again, and although he enjoyed being at Meet Me @ Svitlo, the tall, thin young man struggled to abide by its rules. He often used foul language.
The youth leaders took time to sit down with Oleg and explain why they wanted him to learn to control his speech. They sensed God working through their conversation, and by the end of it, Oleg expressed a strong desire to change. “Nobody has ever cared about me like this,” he said.
Teenagers often feel like “fish out of water” in a new country. They struggle to fit in, to learn a new language, and to make friends. In the youth group meetings, the Ukrainian teenagers finally share those struggles with one another and support each other. They are traumatized by the conflict in their home country. When they realize they are all facing the same challenges, they begin to encourage and help each other.
The Meet Me @ Svitlo team enjoys getting to know these teens more and more deeply. They ask God to give them opportunities to listen to their stories and meet their needs. Their goal is to show God’s love to them through conversation, discussion, and the fun times they have together at youth group.
They live out Jesus’s words in Matthew 5:14: You are the light of the world.
About the author: Jenny Garrity is a storyteller with Greater Europe Mission. Jenny and her husband Kim joined GEM in 1984. They have served in Germany, Belgium, and most recently, Greece in response to the refugee crisis.