Written by Abby Goldstein
It is hard to imagine that just thirty-six hours ago the war in Ukraine felt tragic, yet distant. It is something I have been following for a month: reading articles, watching the news, “Zooming” in to debriefing sessions to learn more about what has been happening on the ground. However, it has been something that I can switch off when it is time to run carpools or make dinner for my family–a tragedy occurring a world away. My daily life is still very much normal. I cannot imagine what I would do and how I would proceed with my life if my world turned suddenly upside down. One month ago, the same men and women I met in Poland yesterday would have probably had that same sentiment.
Tatiana’s life will never be the same. She is a 54-year-old mother of three children, two daughters and one son. Just last month she rocked heels every day to her job at a bank in Kyiv–she had never once worn tennis shoes. Now, she’s fled Ukraine with her two daughters and has to figure out how to restart her life. Her 18-year-old son had to stay behind in Ukraine. Can you imagine having to make that choice? To leave one child behind so that you can get your others to safety?
Ella and Aleksander, a professor of mathematics, feel lucky. Their town in Western Ukraine is still functioning as normal. Even the coffee shop is still open. However, they made the tough decision to leave behind thriving careers in order to keep her 97-year-old mother, who cannot physically get to the safety of a bomb shelter, away from harm. This same 97-year-old woman was born in Poland and immigrated east to Ukraine in order to evade the Nazis. Now she is heading back west towards safety. For the second time in her life she is a refugee fleeing war.
And then there is Irena. She is a single mother to a phenomenal 15-year-old daughter. One month ago her friends were going about their normal lives. They never believed that Russia would actually invade Ukraine and turn their lives upside down. However, Irina had an intuition. She told her daughter, Sophia, that at 15 you can become an adult. Early on they had a conversation about what Sophia should do if for any reason she found herself alone. It was a straightforward, practical conversation about what documents and necessities she would need to pack, and where she would need to go. Now that they’ve fled Kyiv to safety, the trauma still haunts them. Irina has terrible nightmares every night. Sophia, who expresses herself through her art, could not pick up her paintbrushes for a while. I am literally shaking as I write this.
Finally, there is the young mom I met boarding our flight to Israel this morning. She was carrying a two-year-old and two huge bags filled with toys and supplies for her son. She told me that she had to make the difficult decision to leave her husband behind for the sake of their son. She is one of the “lucky” ones with family abroad who can keep her safe and sheltered until this is over. She doesn’t know when, or if, she’ll see her husband again. Mike and I dread flying with our toddler Benji. He’s a wild man who refuses to sit down or use anything but his loudest voice on the plane. This woman’s baby–the same exact age as mine–was completely silent the entire flight.
These are the stories of only four people. As of yesterday, there are 3.5 million Ukrainians who have fled to neighboring countries with another 6 million people that are thought to be displaced from their homes within the country.
But there is so much to be hopeful about. I was lucky enough to meet incredible volunteers from The Jewish Agency for Israel and JDC. When someone calls their hotline from the border for assistance they are there, even if they do not have an immediate spot to house them. The trick, we were told, is to never say no. They have four hours from the border to Lublin to help find them shelter.
The scene at the border was nothing short of amazing. There were volunteers from every country and faith offering humanitarian aid. Each and every one of the people I met has a busy, thriving life elsewhere. In this time of crisis they have dropped everything to come to the Ukrainian/Polish border to help others. This is humanity at its best. The same thing is happening in Moldova, Hungary, and Romania.
When the Jewish Federation of St. Louis’ CEO invited me to travel with our Board Chair, the amazing Greg Yawitz, to the Poland/Ukraine border last week, I immediately said yes. I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew that whatever I was going to see would be life-changing. While we don’t know when, or how, this war will end, we do know that this crisis is far from over. In fact, it’s just beginning. It could take a generation for the Ukrainian people to fully recover. It is our responsibility to help them.
So HOW can you help? Donate to an organization you know and trust. Now is our opportunity to be a light unto the nations.