When you travel, you fall in love with some destinations for their natural beauty or wonderful food or interesting culture. When I went to Ukraine to see my ancestral towns, I fell in love with the people. And that’s why what is happening there now is breaking my heart.
I’m embarrassed to admit my preconceptions about Ukraine when I first visited in 2001. My Cold War-era childhood made me assume it would be drab and gray, the people cheerless and repressed.
Instead, I found a country with beautiful architecture, world class music and ballet. I met people who are creative, well-educated, hard-working, and forward-thinking, and who have a warm and generous spirit, especially when they have the privilege to feed you or pour vodka for you!
I saw the lands my ancestors farmed and lived in for a century. But I fell in love with the welcoming and hospitable Ukrainians—most of whom had no connection to my family history. And so I kept coming back to Ukraine.
I’ve followed the events unfolding for the last couple of months in Kyiv—first in pride that the Ukrainian people were standing up to voice their opposition to their corrupt government. And then in horror as basic freedoms were suppressed and reports came in of people dying, being tortured, or disappearing mysteriously. I’ve been obsessed with following the situation day-by-day through Facebook, Twitter, and through friends who are Ukrainian or living in Ukraine.
I know there are many areas of the world where people suffer from injustice and horrors probably greater than what is occurring now in Ukraine. But the tragedy, actually a revolution, in Ukraine feels personal. I know people there. They are friends who I’ve talked with and traveled with and who have fed me. I’ve stayed in their homes. They’ve stayed in mine.
Ukrainians deserve a government that doesn’t rob them into an economic disaster. They deserve a government that doesn’t threaten them or beat them or torture them. They deserve to have the freedom to live their lives and pursue their dreams. They deserve to have a democratic and independent nation, not a police state. It’s not about whether Ukraine should align with the EU or with Russia. It’s not about the politics. It’s about the people.
It’s about people such as:
Marina and Viktor: Who I lived with for a week, who cooked for 4 hours to make mushroom stroganoff for breakfast because my friend Flavia and I mentioned liking it, who work multiple jobs trying to ensure a future for their two sons.
Micha and Mascha and Sascha: Who slept in their kitchen to allow their American guests (including me) to sleep in the real beds, who fed us strudels (just like mom used to make), who spent their time showing us our ancestral towns, and who laughed with us as we all stumbled over clumsy Ukrainian/German/English conversations so they could explain how excited they were their son had a good job in Odessa.
Serge: Who was an ever-patient host and guide to make sure we learned everything we wanted in each ancestral town we visited, and who works multiple jobs to provide for his family.
Peter: Our van driver who became my buddy, climbing over a wall to get me a few photos of some crumbled German building remains despite the disapproval of our official guide that day; and whose entrepreneurial spirit inspired he and his wife to start a small bus company to provide for their family.
The family in Kassel: Who had three generations of family living in one room, yet insisted our vanload of Americans come in and share a meal with them though they clearly barely had enough food for their own family.
Olga: Who berated the uselessness of Ukrainian men (a reaction to her alcoholic husband) making my friend Flavia and I smile while our male Ukrainian translator shifted uncomfortably in his seat as he translated her tirade; Olga who shows her own caring nature as she spends time weekly visiting home-bound, elderly widows. I’ll never forget the smile on her face on a visit a year later when she proudly showed off a new dress (which she’d received from the mission organization we were visiting) and her new lipstick!
Linda: An orphan in Kyiv, who dreamed of becoming a translator and overcoming the terrible childhood she’d had living in an orphanage.
The lovely Ukrainian woman who worked as a cleaner, and loved her job because it gave her enough uninterrupted time while she scrubbed floors to memorize Scripture.
Vitaly: An orphan, who has overcome his bleak childhood in an orphanage, working hard at two jobs (though he often doesn’t get paid) to support his wife and a new baby on the way.
Eugenia: A bright and beautiful young woman who lost her father at an early age but worked her way through university, speaks multiple languages fluently, and is studying for a master’s degree at a foreign university.
Karolina: Who is running a successful tour business while she supports her son as a single mom, and endured the wrath of our van driver on my behalf when visits to my ancestral towns led us to drive cross-country (which couldn’t have been good for the van).
Inna: Whose command of history and language is amazing (she speaks four or five languages and says “Oh, when you know that many, picking up another language is not that difficult”), was delighted when she discovered we were both Presbyterian, and shows her true Ukrainian spirit as she says with a little smile, “Oh, in Ukraine, vodka is appropriate at any time of day.”
The little lady in Benkendorf: Who put on her best dress when she knew the Americans were in town, threw together a small meal of vareniki, fish, and vodka (of course), and who delighted in showing us her well-stocked pantry, the results of her canning efforts.
Veronika: A young woman who grew up in an orphanage, stumbling to hold a job and make a life for herself as she struggles with basic life skills that most children learn from parents, mentors, and teachers.
The mothers near Uzhgorod who created their own school to make sure their disabled children got the education they needed.
The man in Rozdilna who sent a bottle of vodka to our table and generously insisted that our group of Americans visiting ancestral towns join in the wedding celebrations for his son (or daughter?)!
And so many more.
Pray for Ukraine
Ukraine had economic problems and difficult challenges even before these protests started. But they also have smart, hard-working people to solve those problems if their government isn’t stealing from them or bludgeoning them into submission.
Pray for the people of Ukraine. They are going through a time that will either lead to a stronger and more democratic nation where they can explore their dreams and build a future … or a Ukraine that is a mere puppet state of Russia.