So many friends have reached out this week to say they’re thinking of me. Offering support and looking for news. Curious if I have news from Ukraine and if I know if my family is okay. Everyone has been so thoughtful and compassionate, and I’ve appreciated every message. But to be honest, I don’t know what to say, and I have no news to share. All I can say is that we’re lucky that no family we know of is in danger. But the truth is that any family I know of left Ukraine years ago. My mother is a Ukrainian refugee who has never set foot in her homeland.
If you know me well, you know I’m half Ukrainian and proud of it. My generation was the first to be born in the United States. My Mom was a refugee born in a Displaced Persons’ camp in Germany after WWII. My grandmother was one of the lucky Ukrainians who survived both the Holodomor and the Nazi labor and death camps. She was a survivor, and her life and my family’s history is a series of lucky and unlucky circumstances that have brought me to where I am today.
Like many Ukrainians, my family has persevered through generations of persecution. We have survived traumas, wars, and repeated attempts at genocide to build a life in a different place. Ukrainian traditions and culture run strong in my family and my life. Ukrainian foods are on the table at every holiday. We decorate pysanky eggs and embroider vyshyvanka blouses and other textiles in traditional patterns. We closely guard the pieced-together history of our family and continue to pass down those stories.
We hold on fiercely to these traditions and our history. We are proud to be Ukrainians & to come from a long line of resilient survivors. So much of life comes down to hard work and determination. But a lot also comes down to luck and circumstance. And our history – my history – is a long line of lucky and unlucky circumstances. My family is lucky to be from Ukraine. Unlucky to have experienced the Holodomor. Lucky to survive it. Unlucky to be taken by the Nazis. Lucky to survive genocide and war. Unlucky to not be able to return to our homeland after the war. Lucky to end up in a Displaced Persons’ camp instead of being sent to Siberia as traitors/enemies of Russia. Unlucky to not get to go to the USA (or anywhere really, my mother’s family didn’t get to choose) sooner because of anti-communist sentiment in the 1940s and 1950s. Lucky to finally get visas to come to the USA as refugees almost 15 years after WWII ended. Unlucky to never get to return to Ukraine. Lucky to have survived against all odds to prosper in the USA, Canada, and Australia. Lucky to have no family in Ukraine to worry about during his war. Unlucky to have no family in Ukraine to worry about during his war.
Somewhere in Ukraine, a woman my age is sheltering in a basement with her children as bombs rain down. She is saying goodbye, possibly for the last time, to her sons, her brothers, or her husband as they go to fight for their home. She’s standing in a line, hoping to get to safety in Poland. She’s wondering if she will ever see her home again. In a different version of our family history, she is me, and I am her. Instead, I spent the weekend hiking in Southern Utah with my husband as we celebrated 21 years together. I feel immense gratitude for the life I have. But also immense guilt that I am a Ukrainian who didn’t spend the weekend worrying about my family’s survival. I have the privilege to tell my story and the story of my family. Will she have the privilege to tell hers? Will she get to pass down her history and traditions as she watches the next generations grow and thrive? I can’t watch the news, but I also can’t look away. I cannot stop thinking about her and all the others who didn’t choose this but are now finding ways to survive and fight in the face of incredible violence and trauma.
The effects of trauma can be passed down, and for many Ukrainians, we’re just a generation or two away from past traumas. I’m the first generation in my family who didn’t live through the traumas of genocide and war, and the second generation to be born outside of Ukraine. My siblings and I, and our cousins, nieces, and nephews were all born to privilege in the USA, but we still feel the ripple effects of that trauma. What is happening today in Ukraine will have repercussions for new generations, and unfortunately, many Ukrainians know from our shared history how bad the effects of trauma can be. I can see it in the face of my mother as we discuss the news. That deep sadness and anger come from knowing (both from personal experiences and family stories) what people in Ukraine right now are facing and will continue to face. The knowledge of what effect that will have runs deep for Ukrainians because so many have faced similar traumas in the past. All around the world, Ukrainians who have lived their lives both in Ukraine and outside of it know what it is like to deal with the trauma of war and genocide, either personally or because they know their own family stories. Their hearts are breaking for every Ukrainian, especially the ones facing war tonight. Mine is breaking too.
Right now, what I feel most often about being Ukrainian is a twist back and forth between gratitude and guilt. Grateful for my Ukrainian heritage. Guilty that I only know Ukraine through my family’s history, stories, and traditions but have never visited the country – our country. Grateful to not have anyone to worry about and guilty that I cannot do more. I am proud of my Ukrainian heritage. When I don’t know what to do, I know that I can do what Ukrainians have been doing for generations: Survive. Stand proud. Be resilient. Fight for who we are and for our home. Survive in the face of unspeakable traumas and incredible loss. Carry on our heritage. Gather strength from it. Keep sharing and retelling our stories and our history. Prepare our foods and practice our traditions. Find joy in building a life wherever circumstances take us. Persevere against incredible odds. Find a way. There are so many of us both in Ukraine and scattered around the globe and I guarantee you that right now, every Ukrainian is feeling the effects of what is happening. Ukrainians today are the dream of our ancestors. We carry their stories and their strength with us. Our existence is the ultimate form of resistance.
People ask me what they can do. Stand up and speak out. Read about Ukrainian history. Learn more about Ukrainian culture and traditions. Support bringing refugees to the USA – from Ukraine but also other parts of the world in turmoil. Help those in need in your communities (My grandmother always made room at her table for everyone and anyone. No matter what her current circumstances were, the community was always important to her). Follow reputable sources of news and information. Donate to organizations helping support Ukrainians on the ground and as they deal with the consequences of this war. Be resilient.