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A father in every sense of the word: An Ocala church helps Ukrainian refugees find asylum

Published: Apr. 8, 2022 at 6:56 PM EDT
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OCALA, Fla. (WCJB) - It’s Sunday, March 27, and Fr. Jonathan French stands at the altar inside Grace Episcopal Church in Ocala. The Rector is donned in a purple sash for Lent. He gives the week’s announcements to his congregation.

“I love our prayers to the people, we pray for folks in all kinds of places and troubles,” he said during the service. “And like [me] I’m sure you’ve been praying for the folks in Ukraine.”

He explained that his son, Micah French, is serving in the military, stationed at Aviano air base in northern Italy. Micah’s wife Victoria is also there, living with him.

“They have begun to see Ukraine refugees…come to that area,” Fr. French said. He called on the Ocala parishioners for financial help. “I’m going to gather those funds and I’m going ship it right to that church,” he said referring to his son and daughter-in-law’s church in Italy.

TV20 followed up with Fr. French 12 days after he put out the call and boy did the community show their support.

Tanya Nedashkivs'ka, 57, mourns the death of her husband, killed in Bucha, on the outskirts of...
Tanya Nedashkivs'ka, 57, mourns the death of her husband, killed in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, April 4, 2022. Russia is facing a fresh wave of condemnation after evidence emerged of what appeared to be deliberate killings of civilians in Ukraine.(Source: AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

A three-phase plan

Jonathan French has six children. He said he and his wife keep up with each one and their spouses via group text. He said this all got started when Micah sent a photo in the group chat of him and Victoria sleeping at their church with Ukrainian refugees.

“From there, I knew people from Grace would want to help in some way,” Fr. French said.

Victoria explained that members at their church in Italy came up with a three-phase plan to help the refugees. Phase one was sending supplies (diapers, baby food, clothes, blankets, food, she read off rapid-fire) directly to the front lines, or where camps had been set up.

Two weeks later, Victoria said, the second phase started, which was “receiving and hosting.” At first, she said they hosted 25 people. The Sunday school classrooms about the Sanctuary were turned into dorms.

“Once people in the refugee camp in Romania were prepared, we sent six vans up to Romania to go and collect people to come back here,” she said.

The first wave of refugees stayed for about two weeks Victoria said, before being placed into more permanent housing. Now they’re preparing for the next set of people.

“A bus is being driven back up to Romania to accept 50 people,” said Victoria.

The third phase is semi-permanent placement, which means helping them in “finding jobs, finding apartments, and actual living situations.” This has all happened over the course of just one month.

“When we found out that Russia had attacked, we couldn’t believe it. It was just the worst-case scenario, and immediately, kind of the whole community jumped into action,” Victoria said. “This is our purpose.”

Micah French and his wife Victoria, speak on a Zoom call with Micah's father and leader of...
Micah French and his wife Victoria, speak on a Zoom call with Micah's father and leader of Grace Episcopal Church, Fr. Jonathan French.(WCJB)

A congregation answering the call

Micah grew up at Grace [Episcoal Church], just like all of his children, Fr. French said. Church members prayed for Micah before his deployment to Italy, which is where he has been for the past four years.

“I made an announcement in church,” said Fr. French. “I said my son, and his wife are over there, they’ve received refugees and so if you have been looking to partner or help the refugees in a very direct way, we now have a direct route to care for refugees right now today.”

In just four days, they raised $10,000, and they’re just under $13,000 now. The first gift of $7,700 ensured that the Italian church would be able to sustain this effort for all of April. A Ukraine relief tab was added to the church website because interest has grown so much, Fr. French said, and not even 10 hours later of the new feature being added to the website, an anonymous donor gave $500.

“Thank you all for caring. Thank you for wanting to help,” Victoria said. “Wanting to just see these people through this really difficult situation. It really is kind of a surreal experience to be in this location at this specific time doing this specific thing.”

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