a Kind of Refugee / 10.04.2022
now i am in Kyiv.
the city is spacious, in part because of the terrain, and to a large extent because so many people have left.
yesterday i walked along the Dnipro, in solitude, its cloud-strewn waters beside me.
i feel strength and power being on my own land.
there is a substantial checkpoint at the corner of the street. the people in my neighborhood have always been serious about defending their territory: from speculative building projects, from suspicious elements in 2014, from Russian invasion.
coming back brought the immediate and visceral sensation that while i was, really, at home again, surrounded by familiar things and landscape and daylight, i could never return to “that home” i left the day that missiles exploded within hearing range.
even before recent Russian statements calling for the complete obliteration of Ukraine in the name of “de-Nazification,” before the discovery of Russians’ brutal murders of civilians in the towns surrounding Kyiv, i called this war a genocide. it began the moment that Russia’s massive assault on February 24 sent Ukrainian people fleeing to different parts of the country (and millions across the border), splitting families, scattering communities, wrenching people from their homes and cities.
a human being is not contained in its skin; we need our places and our people to feel like ourselves.
and there is nothing like sleeping in your own bed. the way the body relaxes. even when it fears that it shouldn’t.
there were no air raid sirens last night.
in Lviv i tried all sorts of responses to the sirens. settling down in the corridor with my computer was standard. staying in bed felt defiant. once I slept in the bathtub.
one anxious morning i woke just after falling asleep, dressed, and went down to the nearby bomb shelter. sitting there, butt freezing on the cold pressboard bench and inhaling the dank air, i felt stupid.
the risk of injury or death from an airstrike in Lviv is negligible, but you are sure to damage your health from interrupted sleep and spending an hour with the cold climbing through the soles of your winter boots. minutes after returning to my apartment i am already sneezing.
being safe is not a state, but an event. as long as it keeps recurring you can restore your energy and wits to prepare for the next time you have to think and act quickly. why fill these moments with projections of what could happen based on memories of past suffering?
one night in Lviv i had the distinct sensation that i was back in childhood, lying in bed in the American suburbs. i would often imagine an impending break-in or fire or some disaster i had seen on the TV show Rescue 911. only now—when my body is primed from its own experience of air raid sirens and the threat of bombing from the sky—do i know what that feeling of danger actually was.
i’ve been escaping from the Russians since 1943.
when you run away you preserve the memory of your home unscathed, even if it’s decades before you return (or never). my grandmother took her entire experience of home, sealed hermetically by the abruptness and violence of her departure at the hands of Nazi soldiers, to Germany, then England, and then the USA.
decades later i received a love for her homeland and its warm culture of community as well as an obsession with safety. i also inherited resourcefulness, flexibility, and a talent for getting by in new situations. perhaps i could have been a spy were i not completely occupied with repairing this severed connection between home and security (which has taken generations).
that rupture has made us, like so many millions who went through that war, susceptible to idealizing abstractions like homeland, safety, or peace.
and the devotion to these abstractions is detrimental to life, to a life lived vibrantly (in partnership with death, which will come sooner or later anyway), to political life based on freedom.
the first morning i awoke in Kyiv i sensed a process happening inside my body that was set in action before i was born. as if my primary purpose was to experience that incredibly uncomfortable feeling of going on living in your home, now in the midst of war, knowing that you are under attack and always in potential danger.
i agree wholly with my grandmother that war is something nobody should ever have to experience. but she misjudged in trying to protect me totally. because what i’m learning now i’m learning for all the generations of my family since world war II: peace, like safety, exists in moments. like when it’s dark and quiet at night in Kyiv.
but i feel safety in mobility (thanks to my refugee heritage). and perhaps in nothing else.
PS Community Self-Help is raising funds for gasoline to transport medical aid shipments to cities like Chernihiv, Kyiv, Dnipro, Kharkiv: https://communityselfhelp.org/en/critical-needs