I want to talk about Ukraine.

Not the geopolitical implications of the current invasion. Not the
sanity of Vladimir Putin. Not the effect on our gas prices. No, none of
that. I want to talk about the people I know. The Ukrainians I have
met and love.
Ukraine is my adopted homeland. Not because I share DNA. It is
heartlines, not bloodlines.
In 2008, my husband, Bill, was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to
teach in Ukraine. We spent the better part of a year living in
Drohobych, a city in the western part of Ukraine about the size of
Davenport. Our time there was joyful, challenging and a lesson in the
courage and ingenuity of the Ukrainians. When you think about
Ukraine now, I want you to think about our friends: Olenka, Roman,
Iryna, Sasha, Tatiana, Marianna, Julia and many more.
I often asked people, “what do you most want Americans to know
about your country?”
The answers differed, but the meaning was nearly the same.
“We are proud Ukrainians.”
“We have much to offer the world.”
“We want better lives for our children.”
They wanted to differentiate themselves from Russians and other
Slavic people. I felt their resolve and determination to do that.
As Ukraine is deeply embroiled in a war against them, I spend time
thinking about our experience. We were protected and helped to
navigate the culture and language. We had fun! We traded stories
about our families, our lives, our hopes and dreams. These are the
people I am thinking about now.
I remember visiting the village of a student, Iryna, who I met in the
market. We were served Sunday lunch at the home of her parents,
aunt and uncle. We ate roast chicken, salads made with beets,
potatoes, cucumbers and tomatoes. Varenyky and salo (pork fat used
as butter). The food was delicious and the conversation lively. This
meal was prepared in a kitchen with no running water and a village
with no grocery store. The goal of Iryna’s family was to work hard to
support her at the university.
I remember driving with our friends Tatiana and Gena in their 25-
year-old Volkswagen Golf, brought out on special occasions, to the
ancestral villages of Jewish friends from the U.S. We found them and
were able to gather flowers from the cemetery that had not been
destroyed in the war.
I remember meeting with survivors of Treblinka who had returned to
Drohobych after the war. Before the war, Drohobych was more than
50 percent Jewish.
I remember hanging out with my two best women friends, Olenka and
Tatiana. We talked as though we had always known each other and
shared our deepest thoughts. They were different from one another
but alike in this: both were professors of English, and they were smart
and capable. I swear they could do anything. I used to tell them that if
they lived in the U.S., they would be CEOs, or the president of a
university. Career opportunities there were limited and especially so
for women.
I remember our friends were great networkers. One night our furnace
stopped working. We called our Fulbright “handler,” Sasha, for help.
He knew someone who knew someone who then came to help There
was no part to fix it in Drohobych. They drove to Lviv (about 90
minutes away by car) to pick up the part. We were up and running
within a day. These were not professional repairmen, but friends of
Sasha. It cost us 100 Hryvnia ($20 U.S. dollars) including the drive to
I remember before we left Ukraine, one of our friends, Sasha, wanted
to show us a “Ukrainian good time” by taking us mushroom hunting in
the Carpathian Mountains. We took a train to a small town and then
walked into the mountains to gather mushrooms. We roamed for
hours, gathering beautiful and edible mushrooms while avoiding the
poisonous ones. Sasha’s superpower was to know the difference.
When Bill and I returned to the U.S., it was to a nation in the midst of
a financial crisis. We used to laugh about how it surely would not
affect us because we had learned how to live with less, be inventive
and make our lives work from our Ukrainian friends
My friends here have been asking me what can be done. If you have a
message for the people of Ukraine, I will see that my friends get it
(ukraine20082022@gmail.com). Donate to Red Cross, Nova Ukraine,
Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders, World Community
Perhaps, most importantly, we must speak up at every opportunity
about the evils of authoritarianism wherever it exists, especially in our
own country.
The Ukrainians are brave. We must be, too.