As a traveler, my heart is broken as the war in Ukraine rages on. I had to move the dates for my Baltic Capitols and St Petersburg trip three times because of the pandemic. I wasn’t so sure their Covid recovery rate would allow the trip to go this year, but Putin did what Covid didn’t, and once again, my travel plans were altered. As the granddaughter of four Uranian refugees, this war feels very personal. My ancestral town of Nezhin, of which I learned the name in a letter by a family friend who returned in 1970, is already under partial Russian control, and apparently has long been more Russian than Ukrainian. I believe that we as travelers can play a small but vital role in the unfolding humanitarian crisis, however it is resolved in this possible deconstruction of the current world order. We cannot stop the warfare; but we can travel to the countries where refugees are trying to call their new homes and use our tourist dollars in whatever constructive ways makes sense for all. It’s a unique moment in history to which we travelers can partake and contribute in a safe and meaningful way. And we can emerge from it with a better understanding of the new world we live in as we travel onwards.
I understand the indominable spirit of the Ukrainian people since I saw it on my own family; refugees who fled the Cossack’s pogroms of what was either Russia or Ukraine in the early part of the last century. They learned a whole new alphabet, language, culture, and skill while trying to support their families and take advantage of opportunities America had to offer. One grandfather became a dentist with his own practice, another had ties to the Ukrainian owned United Fruit Company and made a living that way. Even my maternal grandmother worked in what she always called “a five and dime,” and that part of my family lived above the store. My paternal grandmother never worked as far as I knew, but she proudly showed the pickles she was making from cucumbers every time we came over. I only recently learned how very Uranian that was. From these humble beginnings, they created families with children that all became highly educated, hardworking, industrious, and prosperous. And not to be minimized, my relatives had to leave their cities of refuge in the United States and get resettled once more in California to find work during the Great Depression. Their lives were not easy, but they persevered by working multiple jobs and getting educated to advance themselves while doing so. They taught us to do the same. No challenge was insurmountable.
My family’s history is critical to my undertesting of Ukraine today. Ukraine has been invaded so many times, my ancestral town of Nezhin has three spellings, and likely three pronunciations: Russian, Polish, and Ukrainian. The Austro/Hungarian Umpire took a shot at it as well as Nazi Germany and Romania. And apparently all of this happened in the last century alone! But today’s war is a fight against light disarming darkness, good prevailing over evil. The Ukrainians who stayed behind to fight are as fearless in the face of death, as those who left their homes because they are not afraid of a new life. They are all discovering that sometimes a home is what you leave, and sometimes where you arrive. As the poet Robert Frost wrote, “Home is the place where when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
The stirringly beautiful Ukrainian national anthem reminds us of their difficult and tortured history and continual threatened occupation with the song’s title taken from a line in a poem that states,” Ukraine has not yet perished.” Today, with bombs falling and cities under siege, those are the words they sing. As I hear on the news the Ukrainians singing this simple song of freedom, it reminds me that some countries like America are also concepts. America has always been the concept of opportunity and freedom. Ukraine has now become a concept not just of a struggling country and current battlefield, but a symbol of defiance. Ukraine reminds us of the fragility of democracies which are never easy, but are worth fighting for, and that the fight for democracy is vital and necessary for peace the world over. The concept of a sovereign democracy surrounded by hostile neighbors in search for its right to self- determination by a strong, resilient, and irrepressible people is what I think of now when I think of Ukraine. Sadly, it’s not the only country in the world that fits this description. But today it’s on the front lines headed by an unexpectedly determined, charismatic, spirited and creative leader, savvy in the ways of technology and not afraid to use it. He serves as a role model to every modern leader in the free world.
During my upcoming trip to Central Europe which will include the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, I hope to meet these refugees and let them know that I come from a family of Ukrainian refugees as well. Perhaps when they see me, they will understand that while it’s not easy for them now, we stand united behind them in the name of peace and freedom, and life will eventually become easier for them. Their plight and defiance is a fight for all of us. I feel compelled to do all I can to support them, embrace them, and give them hope as they settle in new countries.
Travelers can look at the other side of this as well and learn: Russia, is the country I so wanted to visit one day, along with Ukraine so I could see Nezhin, and go to Babi Yar to pay my respects to Holocaust victims who had perished there. Russia I’m sure will now be off limits for the rest of my life with diplomatic relations being severed the world over. Why did I wait so long, when a visit to Russia was so high on my travel to-do list? When I began travelling with Overseas Adventure Travel in 2014, so many other itineraries looked good, but Russia was always at the top. With the entire world challenged by Covid these days, its difficult to know if I would have missed out on seeing more of the world if my travels each year had gone any other way.
I am certain I will eventually travel to a Ukraine that needs to be rebuilt, and which will require international assistance to do so. I will be honored to pay for a volunteer vacation to go there, help teach English, or offer any other kind of assistance I can. The land may have been bombed; the territory may be decimated. But the hearts and minds of the people are pure Ukrainian. I recognize them. For Ukraine has not yet perished.