A bright yellow and blue Ukrainian flag flutters in the breeze on the front porch of the Mercier home in Mattituck, next to the American Stars and Stripes. It symbolizes Tom and Barbara Mercier’s trips to Ukraine in years past as missionaries, but also their support for a people they know very well.
Last month, Tom, a retired Mattituck pediatrician, and Barbara, a nurse, flew to Krakow, Poland, with Crisis Response International, which mobilizes help to people who are suffering. From there they were bused to the Ukrainian border and, despite the war underway, crossed the border to the Ukrainian city of Stryi, where air raid sirens blared almost every night.
“We went with our whole family in 1995,” Ms. Mercier said, including daughter Nicole and sons Alexander and Joel. “It was the end of the Soviet era, and the place was gray and the people were grim. No one talked freely. No one smiled. People were even afraid they might talk in their sleep and say something that would get reported. But we loved being there. When the war began, we knew we wanted to return.”
Dr. Mercier and his wife came to Cutchogue in 1981 to open his pediatric practice after his residency in New York City. After caring for hundreds of Southold children — it is no exaggeration to say he was a beloved pediatrician — he retired in 2017. His goal was to be productive and useful, but also to listen to his heart so that he and his wife could share their Christian faith with people in need.
“When the war started,” Ms. Mercier said, “something in my heart said, ‘how can we not go?’ We had been there. These were people we knew. They were crying out for help.”
On their earlier trips to Ukraine, Dr. Mercier could see a desperately unhappy people in a post-Soviet country. “There was no happiness,” he said. “They were so fearful. We visited a hospital and we did some clinical work. They sent their hard cases to me as a pediatrician. The medicine there at that time was heartless. The doctors made the same money as someone sweeping the streets. Some were very poorly trained.”
“They were just beginning to open up to the West when we first got there,” Ms. Mercier said. “We were invited into people’s homes. We fell in love with the people. They were so gracious. They were very poor. Their government jobs had vanished. Meals were a piece of cabbage. One couple invited us to their home. Tom asked about the people in the pictures on the wall. Who were they? We were told they were relatives who disappeared. There was a knock on the door and that person was never seen again.”
The couple’s goal on the earlier trips was to spread the word of God. They met people who had lived under Soviet rule and its official “religion”: atheism. Now, with communism gone, they found people who wanted to hear and to listen.
Then, all these years later, the war erupted. “We recognized these people,” Ms. Mercier said. “They are precious people. We have been in their villages, in their churches. We wanted to help clinically, but we also wanted to share the love of God.”
To Dr. Mercier, the war took on a very personal feel. “We knew them as people who cared, people who wanted to do better and advance their families, people trying to have a better life for their kids and themselves.”
Along with other members of Crisis Response International, the Merciers flew from JFK to Krakow, and then went by bus to the Ukrainian border. Any idea that they would spend their time in Poland evaporated when the group proceeded on to the western Ukrainian city of Stryi.
There, they moved into an old Soviet-era hospital that had been converted into a refugee center for women and their children and senior citizens who had escaped the bombings in eastern parts of the country. Men up to 60 years old stayed behind to fight the Russians.
As they crossed the border, their son Alexander — watching his parents’ progress on his phone — texted: What are you doing in Ukraine?
“The people in the center were in great despair,” Dr. Mercier said. “There were 160 refugees living there. A third were children, a third were parents, a third were the elderly.”
“People were arriving every day,” Ms. Mercier said. “They had fled the devastation like you see on the news. A pastor ran the center, and he was a refugee. These people were so broken. They needed help.”
All the former hospital rooms were filled; some had up to seven people in a room; some had their dogs with them. There was a small medical clinic and, perhaps amazingly, there was plenty of food because of shipments from the West.
“We knocked on doors,” Ms. Mercier said, “and we told people we came from America. We told them we want you to know we care. Can we sit and chat with you? There was an 85-year-old woman with her daughter-in-law and granddaughter and great-granddaughter. I chatted with her. Her name was Lydia.
“I prayed for her,” she added. “She started to cry and I listened as she described the horror she had experienced. She hugged me and cried and said, ‘thank you so much.’ I prayed the love of God would wash away her pain.
“We didn’t know what else to do, but we had to do something,” she said.
“People were very grateful,” Dr. Mercier said. “They said, ‘why did you come here, to this place?’ We said, ‘God cares about you and America cares about you.’ For them, they felt no one cared.”
To the Merciers, being in a country with a people under siege was not a hardship. It was a privilege. To spread their faith was an honor. Both felt a lifetime of doing good, of helping people in need, of putting others first, that it all came to fruition in 11 days in Ukraine.
“We did life together with them,” Ms. Mercier said. “We ate together. We sang together. There was an amazing spirit of cooperation among the people. They appreciated all the help. But the world is watching them being killed. They ask, ‘Why can’t the world do more to help us?’ ”