My heart sank when I heard the news yesterday morning. Deep sadness and concern crept in as the reality of the situation was brought to light through the course of the day. The tragedy of the recent events unfolding before our eyes is too hard to imagine, and yet the evidence is there. It’s all happening so quickly, so suddenly. It truly is a dark moment for Ukraine, for the continent, and for the rest of the world.
I spent time in the Ukraine a long while ago - about ten years after the Chernobyl disaster. I was chosen, along with four other students, to go on this adventure to the eastern part of the country. There were three professors with us who planned the trip and made the connections with the university in Kharkov, where we taught English. It was a very special and impressionable time, one that changed my life in many ways, and altered the way I saw the world.
I was in the Ukrainian city of Kharkov for a month and stayed with one of the students who studied at the university. Her name was Vita. She and her parents lived in a residential district of the city, on the 17th floor of one of the many high rise buildings that stood tall in clusters.
Every morning Vita and I walked to the university together, taking the tram part of the way. After a full day in the city, we would arrive back in the evening for dinner. We did this together until I was comfortable enough to go back and forth on my own. It was about an hour long journey each way. Some days I would get back to their building and there was no electricity in the corridor. While I’d been told to pack a flashlight, a few times I forgot it, so I had to climb the 17 flights of steps in darkness. I quickly learned to take my portable pocket lantern with me.
Days would be full with meeting and talking to students, helping them with their English, and planning lessons with our professors. At noon we were invited to someone’s home where we were always served a lavish lunch, consisting of many unfamiliar foods - all (mostly) delicious. Sometimes, during our breaks, we took the opportunity to walk around and explore on our own. Other times we went out with groups of students and had them explain the sites to us in English. They were so proud of their city, and I loved listening to them talk about it.
Every evening, on my return to Vita’s home, I was treated like a queen, being given things that they normally would not have themselves: hot baths that had been prepared earlier in the day, even if they had no running hot water, which happened more often than not, tomatoes on bread with slices of salami, cheese, eggs, nice coffee… In some ways it was embarrassing for me, as I eventually realised this was quite out of the ordinary for Vita and her parents, but they insisted.
I had long chats with Vita at the small square table in a tiny kitchen over dinner and breakfasts, while her parents sat watching television in the adjoining lounge. She was the most fluent English speaker in the class, and shared her dreams of coming to visit us in America.
When I left the Ukraine, I kept up with Vita for a time, and a year or two later her dream was realised, and she visited my university in the States. I was able to show her and a group of Ukrainian students the bustling city of Chicago and other places in the midwest, returning the wonderful hospitality they had given to us.
There is so much to say about this beautiful country, the people and their warmth - too much for one blog post. I’m so grateful for the time I was able to spend there, learning about this special culture and people.
Ukraine is living proof of a country where, when given freedom, they thrive, and there is so much richness and life, generosity and growth.
Now, after 30 years, is peace in Europe a thing of the past?
I think of my friend, Vita, and her family. I don't know where they are right now, but I pray for them and the rest of the country.
Ukrainian poet Volodymyr Sosiura (1898-1965) in his poem “Love Ukraine” (1944) stated that one cannot respect other nations without respect for one’s own.
by Volodymyr Sosiura (1944)
Love your Ukraine, love as you would the sun, The wind, the grasses and the streams together… Love her in happy hours, when joys are won, And love her in her time of stormy weather.
Love her in happy dreams and when awake, Ukraine in spring’s white cherry-blossom veil. Her beauty is eternal for your sake ; Her speech is tender with the nightingale.
As in a garden of fraternal races, She shines above the ages. Love Ukraine With all your heart, and with exultant faces Let all your deeds her majesty maintain.
For us she rides alone on history’s billows, In the sweet charm of space she rules apart, For she is in the stars, is in the willows, And in each pulse-beat of her people’s heart,
In flowers and tiny birds, and lights that shine, In every epic and in every song, In a child’s smile, in maidens’ eyes divine, And in the purple flags above the throng…
Youth ! For her sake give your approving laughter, Your tears, and all you are until you die… For other races you’ll not love hereafter Unless you love Ukraine and hold her high.
Young woman ! As you would her sky of blue, Love her each moment that your days remain. Your sweetheart will not keep his love for you, Unless he knows you also love Ukraine.
Love her in love, in labour, and in fight, As if she were a song at heaven’s portal… Love her with all your heart and all your might, And with her glory we shall be immortal.
Translated by C.H. Andrusyshen and Watson Kirkconnell “The Ukrainian Poets, 1189-1962.” University of Toronto Press: Toronto, 1963.
Folk painting by Ukrainian artist, Maria Pryimachenko