a Kind of Refugee / 06.03.2022
it is night. and deeply quiet. i am waiting for my old friend from Kyiv to arrive at my apartment. yes, i am already calling it mine although i should remember that it is not.
humans’ capacity to adapt is incredible. i am already at home in war.
in the midst of war, people are still exactly who they are. only everything is intensified. decisions must be made in light-seconds. i’ve passed through this state before, the one where your body is flooded with adrenaline, your thinking is unusually clear, your actions well-timed. it is the state before an approaching deadline, when all hands are on deck, when you have to defeat the distractions of fear/anxiety or laziness/sleep, those habits of mind that prevent you from performing superhuman feats. it is usually temporary, but now i am living in it.
the day after Sasha went back to Kyiv i was awoken by a phone call from Yuri who had just arrived with his wife and her mother. 36 hours later Yulia and Tatiana were in a car bound for Warsaw and i offered a place to Viktor, who appeared in our volunteer headquarters, and now Alisa is here too. i have met so many new people in the past week: Ivan, Katya, Zhenya, Karina, Nastya, Ulyana, Teimur…
the fabric of human connections that held me in place in Kyiv was ruptured the instant we all began to scatter. the friends i used to see and sense and touch on a regular basis are now in Kolomiya, Zakarpattia, Warsaw, Kyiv, and i don't know where. you can’t see the destruction of this fabric of social bonds (fluid and subtle) like you can a gaping hole with charred edges in a building or a distant fire spewing black smoke. but it is no less devastating.
you still need human contact and there is no time to build up those connections over repeated encounters and years. you are just open and available to every person you cross paths with. whoever is right beside you is your partner in whatever you are doing and needing in this moment. every person who is not the enemy is a friend, a compatriot, an ally.
humans have a special sense with which you can tell almost immediately whether a person is of their environment, like if they belong to this city, if they are a part of its fabric. i used to take pride in being able to “pass” for a local when visiting a city and tourists would ask me for directions. but i was playing then.
this city is filling up with refugees. we look at each other as we pass on the street, sizing each other up and asking with our eyes, are you one of us? it’s a shy gaze and one that does not want to look too deep lest it be intrusive. not only so as not to be disrespectful but also because i’m not particularly ready to take in your pain too.
today i spoke to my grandmother in connecticut, the one who i failed to call on her 95th birthday on february 24, though i was well aware of the coincidence as my friends and i made our way, point by point, further west from home. our conversation is usually primitive, the repetitive questions serve as channels for a communication of love and attention that means more than the words. it’s been years since we’ve talked about current world events. today she asked me something new: she asked if i had a problem. no, i said, i am okay, discursively separating myself from the theater of war, to assure her of my safety (old habit). don’t go to the problem, she said. no, i responded, no need, it will come by itself. i understood then that she understands that i am on her path again. and i’m beginning to understand her story so much better from the inside.
my genetic inheritance has prepared me for this. and isnt’ that sad? sad?! can you find a word adequate to describe the fact that some 80 years after my grandmother was taken by the nazis (those nazis, the original ones) from her village in the west of the Lviv region to be a forced laborer on a farm in Germany and then she was a DP and then a refugee, here i am? i realized decisively around february 20 that i do not want to be a refugee. been there done that. “i” have been pushed out and away from my home once before. in some way, holding my ground in Lviv as an american citizen, i am with those people from Donetsk who refuse to leave the capital of Ukraine.
PS The organization Come Back Alive (Повернись живим) -- born from volunteer efforts to support and equip the Ukrainian military & volunteer soldiers defending the country from Russia's 2014 invasion and now the largest foundation providing support to Ukraine's Armed Forces -- has a new website: https://www.comebackalive.in.ua/