Opinion: After fleeing Kyiv for western Ukraine, my and other families seek out ways to help

I am in Khmelnytskyi, Ukraine, with my family. This is the town where I grew up, where I went to school, where my parents live. At the moment, things are fairly calm here. Yes, we run to the bomb shelters when the sirens blast, but it was way scarier in Kyiv. We try to stay useful to our local and, let me point out, very active volunteer movement. It is our cure against depressing thoughts.

We weave the camouflage nets, called “kikimory” for Ukrainian tanks and soldiers. Next to me is a mother and a daughter maybe 12 years old. The space is bone chilling and the girl is tired now. “We need to finish,” says her mom. “It is our contribution. Do not slack, Barbara! Let’s show our resolve and finish.”

We witness a never-ending flow of people bearing gifts to the local volunteer hub. I see four people, each carrying a corner of a mattress. I see others carrying plastic bags with food and clothing. A grandma steadying herself with a cane is carrying two oranges and a home-made jam in an “avoska” (a homemade knit bag). She is mumbling to herself, “easy, easy.”

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We are at the farmers’ market talking to a guy at the dry goods section. “If you have ever bought from me, you know I have the best corn meal,” he says.

“I have not bought from you before,” I reply. “I am from Kyiv.”

“Oh, thank God you are here now! Hold on. Take this for your children. Cookies. This is from me. For free. Everything is going to be all right.”

Opinion: After fleeing Kyiv for western Ukraine, my and other families seek out ways to help

I am recording a video for my special-needs students. Two remain in Kyiv. A young girl who cannot walk independently basically has to live in her bathtub layered with blankets. Her family lives on the 20th floor of a high-rise with no chance to run to the basement each time the sirens blast. I want to encourage them, but instead they encourage me. “Of course, we will see each other again! Everything will be all right. We are hanging on. Take care of yourself! See you soon!”

My sister and her family are in Hungary. Her young daughter is trying to make sense of the calm, slow pace of Budapest everyday life. “Mom, look, they are EATING APPLES OUT ON THE STREETS!”

We are trying to convince friends from Kyiv to leave and join us here. My friend answers, “No, thank you. We are staying. We do not want to compete with people from Bucha and Kharkiv who lost everything.” We have not been able to get in touch with our loved ones in Makarovsky suburb. Friends from Irpin suburb, I cannot fathom what you are experiencing right now. I wish I could use the Harry Potter spell that awakens the giants. I wish I could use it to get our Motherland Statue to shelter people with her shield.

A retired teacher hands over her cash that she has been saving for her funeral to the volunteers. She wants it to go to the internally displaced people. She says it is not the right time to die.

Snowdrops are here. It is the first sign of spring.

There is no scale to measure everybody’s contribution to the victory. Do what you can where you are with what you have. Barbara, do not slack! Soldiers, live! And return us our mason jars in which we packed your provisions. Joanne Rowling, send us your good charms so that we could awaken the giants for our protection, and walk outside on our peaceful streets eating apples!

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About the author and the translator

Olga Yakovenko is from Kyiv, Ukraine. This piece was translated by Maryna Nading of Decorah, Iowa.

Nading writes: "Our (extended) families live in the same apartment building in Khmelnytskyi, Ukraine. It is one of those bleak-looking gray panel buildings built throughout the socialist bloc countries in the 1980s. But there has always been much happiness inside those walls until recently. Olga’s family lives on the fourth floor, and my family lives on the third floor. Our parents are friends and still live in the same apartment building. Olga and I grew up and left. I am now Iowa-based. I teach anthropology at a liberal arts school, Luther College. Olga lives and works in the special education field in Kyiv.

"Russian invasion displaced Olga and her Kyiv family, who endured a hellish car escape from Kyiv under exploding skies to the relative safety of Khmelnytkyi. Their family of five, plus the in-laws, moved in with her parents in the same apartment where Olga grew up. I vividly remember a black piano that had the honored place in the corner of their living room. I wonder where nine people find room in their small apartment. I know they are in a better situation right now than many in Ukraine.

"For Olga, her childhood home still offers shelter and comfort, something millions of Ukrainians have lost. Our families continue to be friends, and now my sister’s girls play with Olga’s youngest child between the trips to the makeshift bomb shelter when the sirens are wailing. Olga, her husband, and her older children started volunteering two days after their arrival to Khmelnytskyi. Olga has allowed me to translate her poignant observations about these weeks of hellish war in Ukraine. I share her belief that before too long we, Ukrainians, will be able to go about our peaceful lives."