Why I care about Ukraine

The past few days have been a vortex of flashing red headlines on CNN, an outpouring of blue and yellow -coded images on LinkedIn, outrage-provoking photos of death and needless destruction and… silence at my workplace, and my previous workplaces, which I find hard to fathom for places that felt compelled to take strong public stances during the Black Lives Matter protests or the Capitol Riots.

But then I remembered a friend’s friend from childhood who by extension I had to invite to one of my birthday parties (ah, the days of teenage social pressures which aren’t so different from adult social pressures), as she remarked “Oh yeah, my Dad is from Ukraine, or Europe, or whichever. I can’t remember if Ukraine is in Europe, or Europe in Ukraine”. I wonder if she gained more knowledge as she grew older, but if her knowledge of geography and history is any indication, I suspect many Americans just don’t get what the big deal is, an attitude that comes a shock to Europeans, even Americanized ones such as myself.

I tried to explain to a friend who actually cares enough to ask me how I was doing what jumble of emotions were spreading in me. And while it’s hard to make complete sense of it in the moment, mostly it is a horror at the evil of man and the senselessness and atrocity of unnecessary death and destruction. The literal action of taking away an existing act of creation – whether it was someone’s life or a monumental building or necessary infrastructure like a bridge – to instead leave chaos and sorrowful emptiness in its wake leaves me doubting in mankind and wondering, is that really the legacy someone would choose to leave behind? Because it is a legacy of sadness, loss, evil… and ultimately nothingness, a taking away of a good, and leaving behind of emptiness.

As a recently-born mom, I am appalled and saddened by what Ukrainian families are going through. The images of refugees fleeing their homes with only a handful of luggage, of moms carrying children on their backs or dragging strollers through the mud, has become only too common in recent years. But it strikes me harder when the mothers are our neighbors and the country they are fleeing to is my homeland, my family’s country of origin, and often the country of origin of the refugees. Poland and Ukraine have a complicated, multi-century history, which was not always – or not often – peaceful, but at its best moments, the two nations shared and traded land, culinary traditions, religious faith, and language. So many Polish families have roots in the Ukraine – including mine, and vice versa. The lady who faithfully took care of my grandparents as they aged in their Warsaw house is Ukrainian. What has become of her, and her family to whom she steadfastly sent money to support her children and their farms – who knows.

In another sense, seeing the invasion by Russia of Ukraine strikes terror in the hearts of Poles, including even those born outside the country in freedom. The rumbling of invading forces from the East (and the West, and the South, and the North) is the steady soundtrack to Polish families’ histories. We know well what it is like to be invaded by a neighbor, when other neighbors and allies stand aside. We know well what horrors of torture, corruption and evil are harbored under the phrase ‘regime change’, and what the consequences are for ordinary people’s lives and livelihoods. Even for those of us who were young and lucky enough not to experience any of the oppression on our own skins, the trauma lives on in the spinning of wartime stories by my grandparents at every gathering with their peers (and it was never necessary to specify which ‘war’ was being talked about – it was always the Second World War they were referring to), of PTSD and anxiety we seem to have inherited as a group. And knowledge of the war wasn’t just old-timers’ stories that you could tune out – every Warsaw street corner has a plaque remembering the heroes who were killed there, every Polish high school student spends their senior year reading the obligatory books detailing life and death in concentration camps. My high school had a whole hallway dedicated to an exhibit of how it served as a hospital during the Second World War, when nuns tended the wounded. War, and its painful consequences, and the feeling of being on the brink of being invaded, are deeply written into the Polish psyche, coloring our everyday interactions and our reluctance to plan ahead for holiday trips – because who knows what might happen, before then…

The Polish attitude towards Ukrainians has not always been welcoming or warm – as a sizeable minority, they are often known for taking jobs Polish people don’t want, as Polish people emigrated west-ward to take jobs the US and UK populations didn’t want. And other than protests in favor of the Orange Revolution and democratization of Ukraine (that I remember partaking in as a student), I can’t recall people being particularly concerned about welcoming Ukrainians. But that has all changed within the space of a week. I’m proud of Poles who are opening their small homes (apartments) and their large hearts to waves of refugees, of Poles who are collecting food and medical donations, of Poles who are rushing to the border with warm food and transportation. Poles always did best in difficult situations, and always know how to rally about important causes, when it is a battle for life vs. death, or freedom vs. death and annihilation. I believe that as much evil as has been unleashed in the past week, there is so much good and opening of hearts that is also happening, less volubly, but more significantly. Poland is really applying the maxim “Gość w dom, Bóg w dom” (a guest in the home is God in the home). I wish that there didn’t have to be extreme darkness to spur us all to shine the light, but especially now we need to talk about and show the mobilization that is being done to defeat evil, to shore up our faith in the solidarity and empathy of humans.

God bless and help us all. As the news pours in, don’t forget there are many ways to help. You can donate to Polish Humanitarian Action (Polska Akcja Humanitarna) to support the refugees; or if you prefer US-based organizations, Catholic Relief Services is working directly with Caritas Polska, and you can also support the work of Save the Children and International Rescue Committee.

PS. I don’t know if this is a one-time reappearance on this blog, or whether I’ll be back here more often. Time will tell.