a Kind of Refugee / 07.09.2022
How does it feel to be back in the US? Kind of like being transported back in time and visiting my past. Only the people around me are still in their own present.
In Vermont I had the pleasure of meeting members of an ad-hoc community of Ukraine supporters who stand in Montpelier each Tuesday and Thursday to remind passersby about the ongoing war in Ukraine. Most had never known of each other’s existence before February 24. Over the past half-year it’s become a regular gathering, a way to catch up with one another, kind of like how the Ukrainian diaspora of my youth used to come together at church every Sunday.
When we speak one-on-one, our conversations soon turn toward family history and the difficulties of growing up in a Ukrainian immigrant family in North America. The experience of being an outsider, of making enormous efforts to fit in and be accepted, has shaped us for generations. It’s only much later that one realizes that relationships work both ways, and that I, the (real or imagined) outsider, should be open to accepting the other too.
It is natural for humans to tune to one another. We seek acceptance and blending as a means of security. The reasons to not want to speak of the ugly deeds one has witnessed, endured, committed, or even learned through accounts of others are many. Not least the need to maintain the social bond between you and the person you need to help you survive and recover.
Trauma moves you to do things in ways that are often inappropriate to the situation at hand or even unnatural. I’ve spent an awful lot of time moving from place to place, compelled by questions that I can’t answer by staying put; escaping from uncomfortable situations (instead of facing them head-on); coming back to the familiar with a different perspective; fleeing imminent danger; following insatiable curiosity; and for the sake of familiarity, as if I could keep doing what I used to long after it has stopped being valid.
Several years ago I identified as “bi-continental.” This was the grand ambition (which my body consistently protested) of “owning” my duality as a US-born American citizen and a Ukrainian-rooted transplant to Ukraine. Practically speaking it meant traveling back and forth between my apartment in Kyiv and New York City / Connecticut / Vermont, spending a month here, some months there, and basically a few years living in the constant fog of jetlag. I was saved by the worldwide lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, which forced me to stay put for nearly a year.
When the renowned philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler* asks, “Can I have it both ways?” — in the context of wishing to support Ukrainians in their war against russian invasion (clearly the “right side” in this conflict) AND maintain an anti-war position (which means believing that all military operations, including Ukraine’s to retake its territory occupied by russia, are bad) — I can answer from experience with a resounding NO.
But where does this audacity come from? Both Judith Butler and I are formed by the late-20th-century American Dream, where what you WANT TO BE eclipses looking and discovering and accepting and honoring who YOU ARE.
Old habits die hard. I came back to the US for three weeks because I (thought I) could. Almost like an act of defiance: Look, Putin, you can’t stop me from making a family visit to the US, from going to my friend’s wedding I’ve been waiting for since 2020! And he didn’t. Nothing did.
Only nothing is like it was before.
Let me be clear: I am absolutely responsible for making the decision to fly to the US right now and following through on it; and the utter exhaustion and inability to connect with people around me is mine. But the missiles exploding in Ukrainian cities are russia’s. The soldiers occupying Ukraine’s territory are russia’s. The intent to destroy Ukraine and its people is russia’s.
MY responsibility lies in seeing this, not turning my eyes away, and acting accordingly. But what do you do when you’ve made a huge blunder in the “acting accordingly” department by moving along on a program that was set two years ago and you know everything has changed but you still go ahead? As if you could have it both ways.
When I found a ticket on an airline I (thought I) liked with a humane schedule at a reasonable price I thought — this is a gift of fate! I barely managed to pack before leaving Kyiv (as I was scrambling to finish a translation that was more important) and was ready to abandon the whole trip had my cab driver not assured me he could get me to the the train station with 12 minutes to spare. I had after all taken three hours that afternoon to go to Andriyivskyi Uzviz to buy wedding presents (and support the Ukrainian local economy).
I carried these things in two backpacks—one in back and one in front—first by train to Warsaw and then public transport to the airport and then by plane to New Jersey and then public transport to my cousin’s in Brooklyn. It was a self-loathing pilgrimage, every minute a stubborn effort to follow through on my commitments to all these Americans I had told I was coming. Would they have forgiven me if I bailed? Probably, but it’s like I was having it out with the universe. Or running a marathon (which I would never actually do): deep breath, focus on the immediate accomplishable goal, then look toward the next one, just keep going, tiredness is just a state of mind… How American is that? With a splash of the Soviet Stakhanovite, driven by the urge to achieve a superhuman goal. In fact, once I arrived, I only had the stamina to attend one of the two-day wedding festivities, too wiped out by war and travel.
To put it plainly: It is natural to be happy in the presence of people you love. I love my parents. I love my sister and brother-in-law. I love my grandmother. I love my dear old friends in the US. But my happiness is slight before the overwhelming urgency of Ukraine’s battle to free its territory from russia’s invasion, to save our people, and to build and fortify our political nation. The war in my home is unnatural.
I came here to bring the war to you. So you can see and sense this body that’s been there. So you needn’t get on a plane, put yourself in danger, or trouble your conscience about straining Ukraine’s fragile wartime economy. Many of you, like me—whose families came to the US seeking refuge from wartorn lands—already know somewhere deep down in your bones and psyche what it feels like to be attacked by bombs and shells and shooting soldiers.
This is the present I’ve brought you from Ukraine: an angry, exhausted, preoccupied me, who doesn’t have time for the peacetime pleasures we once enjoyed together. My lack of compassion for your everyday troubles is the natural result of being in an unnatural situation. And you are in this unnatural situation too.
I remember the woman at the Lviv train station in March, freshly arrived from Mariupol after three weeks hiding in the basement from russia’s rain of explosives. The only one willing to talk to a journalist from French TV. She was a lawyer, who must have led a pretty privileged life until recently. With dark-ringed, flashing eyes, she recalled the harrowing journey out by car, not knowing whether they’d survive the russian shelling of the evacuation convoy. And the joy of seeing the first Ukrainian volunteers and soldiers as they got closer to Zaporizhzhia. She also had a message for the Red Cross and all the international organizations and people with authority and influence in the West: Do something! People still trapped in Mariupol’s basements WANT TO LIVE! Use your power to get them to safety!
Maybe I should have come home missing a limb. Maybe this body of mine looks too normal to convey the pain and horror that has me screaming inside, “Look! This is really happening!”
Your attention is not enough, for there are different kinds of attention. I am not satisfied by your relief to see me here intact. Personal connections, where each encounter requires building a gradual bridge between us because we’re speaking from different worlds, are no substitute for political life.
We need Himars, ammunition, NATO military training, active NATO and US deterrence. We need your political concern and political spirit and political thinking. If you don’t understand what that is, now is the time to ask questions, start learning and practicing. I would hate for war to become the last remaining arena for political “discussion.”
*https://kontur.media/butler (scroll down for English)
PS Tomorrow, Thursday, September 8 at 6.30 PM, I’ll be talking about Ukraine and reading pieces from a Kind of Refugee at the Whiton Memorial Library in Manchester. Details here: https://www.facebook.com/events/3352306095052811
If you’re around, please come by!
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Thank you so much for your very real account of what is going on. It breaks my heart. My grandmother was first generation from Ukraine to the United States.
I feel like my hands are tied. What can I do here in the US to help the Ukrainian people?
God bless you and God bless the Ukraine!