“As I am sitting in the kitchen of complete strangers who have opened up their home to me, gave me food, shelter, and a brief feeling of safety, I am holding back my tears… We take a shot of alcohol in the name of the fallen. We take another shot in the name of our soldiers. We take another in the name of Ukraine. We whisper our little speeches. We share our gratitude. We share hope. And I realize we are… unbeatable. Because we do not lose our strength. We just can’t. We wouldn’t be Ukrainian if we did. As long as we whisper in unison “Слава Україні” (Glory to Ukraine), we are strong… I shed a tear when I say, “воля або смерть” (“freedom or death”). I am glad they don’t see in the dark. I think of all the people for whom this familiar phrase became too real.” – Alexandra Markova
As war rages on in Ukraine, I sit in my own kitchen in the United States over a cup of tea in the morning. The sun rises over frosty fields. It is calm. I scroll through my phone, switching between the live updates on Kyiv Independent and the live map as I do for most of the day. My phone battery has never drained so fast as it does these days. Are my family and friends okay? I never know for sure as nothing can update fast enough. I remain skeptical of the accuracy of the news I do receive, as my host town is comparatively small when it comes to cities like Kharkiv and Kyiv which are the main focus of media reporting. If something happens in that small town, will the news lag in reporting? Will I know too late? Uncertainty is the hardest part of war. Every message I receive says “I am safe for now,” knowing that things may change at a moment’s notice.
On January 24th, my former students in Ukraine practiced evacuations in the event of war. I put off contacting my friends, afraid of what they would say about the increasingly worrying situation. On February 18th I reached out to a handful of my closest Ukrainian friends who told me how they discussed what to pack in their go-bags if they had that option, and for those who didn’t – where they might possibly find shelter locally. They commented that on the 16th, there were bombs that could be heard from their homes but shared rumors that the 22nd would be the “date of invasion.” Even among these discussions, we kept things light-hearted. After Putin’s speech on February 21st which disregarded the centuries-old history of Ukraine and instead referred to it as a result of “crude” decisions made by “Lenin and his comrades-in-arms,” we traded memes comparing the history of Kyiv and that of Moscow. We tried to make light of an increasingly darkening situation.
On February 23rd Putin declared war. Many of my friends do not have the means to leave our town, even if they wanted to. Some of them packed bags, just in case, but many were instead prepared to stay in place, my host parents included. I worried as my small town is on the direct path from the Russian border to Kyiv. I would watch for the tank icon to show up on the live map and they said my city was under attack. I waited to see if it would turn red – signifying Russian occupation. It didn’t. For now, my city remains unoccupied but completely surrounded and cut off from receiving aid and supplies. Nothing can go in, nothing can go out. After one of these invasions, I asked my closest friends and family if they were okay. My host dad simply replied “все норм” (“everything is normal”) even though I knew this was not the case as my friends told me of the destruction surrounding the city.
Even so, Ukrainians have a spirit that I feel cannot be broken. During an onslaught of Russian force, Ukrainians played the national anthem from balconies. Русский корабль иди нахуй (“Russian warship, go f*** yourself”) has become a rallying cry for many. Ukrainian forces continue to stand up bravely against Russian forces despite being outgunned and outmanned. Civilians stand united against Russian forces in whatever way they are able. While many make Molotov cocktails to throw at passing infantry or take up arms, others offer support through acts of civil resistance as one man offers “a ride back to Russia” for some Russian troops whose equipment broke down, a woman offers sunflower seeds to Russian soldiers to “allow sunflowers to grow where they fall,” and some farmers even stole Russian tanks using tractors. While these acts continue to inspire and unite communities around the world to stand with Ukraine, they do not erase the destruction caused by war.
On February 27th, I woke up to a message from my host siblings “Rose, please call us today when you are able.” Worried that something had happened to our parents in the surrounded village, I called them as soon as I saw the message. They asked me to help them evacuate Ukraine, to send any information about seeking asylum anywhere. They want to come to the United States, but my friends working at UNHCR say this would be difficult. They do not have visas and I am the only American they know.
I became a refugee asylum expert overnight – researching any information I could find on countries accepting Ukrainian refugees. The UK doesn’t allow Ukrainians who are not family of citizens – a dead end. But for every dead end I found, I found twice as many open doors. Poland, Germany, Ireland all were options that would be faster than the US which still had a visa requirement in place. Okay. Next step, who do I know in each of these countries who can help house my siblings – one who is 17 and considered an unaccompanied minor? By chance, I find someone who studied in the US when I was in high school. We hadn’t talked in 6 years, but she immediately messaged back saying she would contact her sister and other family members who still lived in Poland to see who could help. I reached out to people who I knew were in Ireland and Germany, just to see what else I can find to support them if they move further beyond Poland. I found another friend who lives in Germany and is already housing another Ukrainian family and a Peace Corps volunteer from Ukraine who offered to be a point of contact there. I sent over any information I could find and told them to let me know when they were able to cross the border.
I spent most of the 28th waiting to hear from them that they had arrived in Poland. I let my host parents know and asked them if there was anything I could do to help them in their surrounded city. My host dad sent back a text in Ukrainian: “Thank you Rose. You already help us a lot because you are helping our children. For us, their lives and future are the most important thing. We are doing relatively well. Don’t worry about us. We love you, hug you. Take care of yourself.” I cried in my office at work, a place I’m somehow still going to for eight hours every day.
I asked my coworker if they were interested in speaking with a Ukrainian school about their experiences and they told me how “cool” it is that I know teachers in Ukraine. I can only think how sad it is that my coworkers can speak about war with enough distance that they think it is “cool.” They don’t consider the conditions under which these students and teachers are volunteering to speak to our class and advocate for their situation. I wonder if they will still think it is “cool” after the talk. I wonder if it is possible for our students to imagine tanks within 100km of their house or calculating carefully every time they go to the store how much food, water, and gas, they may need if their city is bombed. I donate even more money to Ukraine because I would rather be broke than in a world without this country I grew to love so much.
Ukrainians are fighting this war not only for themselves but for all those of us who believe in freedom and democracy. When I think of Ukraine, I think back to 2019 when I first arrived in the country to teach. I think of playing the card game, Дурак, by the lake as the sun sets in Zhytomyr. I think of spending days in October and early November winterizing my host family’s dacha (cottage), of them graciously accommodating my vegetarian diet to always make me feel welcome and included. I think of birthday parties, laughter, and classes that left me inspired and hopeful about the future of the world, not just Ukraine. Now as I listen to CNN and scroll Instagram to find resources posted by Ukrainians that I might be able to act on, I can’t help but think about what a bright future my students predicted in our lessons. A Ukraine with green energy sources, beautiful architecture, thriving art and culture, technological advancements even Elon Musk hasn’t dreamed of. I think of our Human Rights Day lesson when my students said over and over that they wanted just one thing – world peace.
As my host brother told me, Ukraine does not want this war. I hope the future my students dreamed of and believed in still exists out there somewhere. I believe in the future of Ukraine – I did then, and I do today. Слава Україні. Героям слава.
Kristalena R. Herman was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine from 2019 to 2020. She worked for CHGS in 2018-2019 and her focus area was on the framing of homosexuality and misinformation in Russian state media.