TW: This story contains references to the impact of the war in Ukraine on children
Some stories are both true and imagined, and this is one of them.
Our Ukrainian family finally arrived in Warsaw! A mother and her two little girls. It took them four days to get here. There were dozens of checkpoints along the way which really slowed things down. My heart breaks just hearing about it.
Olena, the older girl, said “I thought I’d freeze to death sleeping in the car. We didn’t have any blankets so I put on all the clothes I had and it still wasn’t enough.”
“I was so hungry,” added the little one.
Svitlana, their mother, explained that it had gotten harder to find food before they left. They had eaten everything they had brought with them by the second day of their trip.
Then, when they were 12 miles from the border, they ran out of petrol and abandoned their car in a caravan of other cars that had met with the same fate. They walked from there.
It was all I could do to not break down in front of them. I keep thinking about my own children and how Svitlana’s ever survived this journey.
I’ll write more later. Right now, I have some very hungry mouths to feed.
I think the girls are a bit shell-shocked and are clearly missing their father. Kateryna is only six, but she told me she’d remember crossing into Poland from Ukraine for the rest of her life.
I am worried about childhood trauma, but will not voice that to their mother. These little girls’ lives have spiraled out of control and they are hanging on for dear life.
So concerned about your extended family. How they made it all the way to Warsaw is a miracle.
When the family arrived at the border, there were piles of paperwork to be completed, and not enough translators, so they ended up missing the bus that would bring them to town. This turned out to be a good thing in disguise because by the time Svitlana had everything sorted out, Kateryna, the youngest, had wandered off.
Her older sister, Olena was sent to find her. When she didn’t return, their mother began to panic. But she followed the sound of music coming from the other side of the staging ground and sure enough, there was Kateryna mesmerized by a man playing the piano, her doll propped up on the piano bench.
“Mommy, I’m teaching the piano player some Ukrainian songs,” she said. It seems the two of them made quite a duet. This little one has already captured my heart and apparently quite a few others as well.
Got to run. There is an endless list of things to do to get our guests settled in.
No one knows how long they will be here.
Beata -I heard about that piano player on the news here! They said he drove 13 hours with his grand piano in tow to serenade the waves of people who were streaming across the border. He plays beautifully. So glad he provided a small respite from their hardships.
It’s surprising to see that the refugees crossing the border aren’t met by aide societies, but by women and children and neighbors who are giving them food and blankets, toiletries, and directions. Hope has many faces.
Can I send you money to help support your refugee family? Or do you need something else?
Every morning, the first thing we do is check to see if Kyiv is still holding.
For the moment, we have everything we need. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have now arrived in Poland, challenging our infrastructure. There's no money in any of the ATM’s right now, and there was a temporary petrol shortage, as everyone stormed the petrol stations fearing the supply would be cut off.
We remain hopeful that things will go back to normal.
This whole situation with Russia and the Ukraine is horrific. I wish I could just close my eyes and have it go away; but I think that's exactly what most world leaders did before the outbreak of the war -close their eyes and hope it disappears- and that was not an effective strategy, to say the least.
Be well Beata, Em
Our Ukrainian family is trying to get accustomed to living in a foreign country. The language barrier is quite an obstacle. I've been learning some Ukrainian and now I understand what they're saying, if they speak slowly. We manage to get by with the use of a little Google translate and a lot of goodwill.
The girls attend different schools. Kateryna attends an English-speaking school and Olena, poor thing, is in a Polish language school with my daughters. But between them they will be an unstoppable force.
Kateryna drags her one-armed doll with her everywhere she goes, including to school. I am not sure how the doll lost her arm or how we may get it repaired, but the doll means a great deal to her. Maybe she confides in her?
I need to get busy making pierogies. The Ukrainian women are gathering here tomorrow night. They usually get together a few nights a week just for an hour or so, to watch the Ukrainian news, and talk about their loved ones back home. It is quite a community and one I am proud to be a part of, if even just on the periphery.
Guess what happened last night when the women came over to our house? Svitlana recognized one of her neighbors on TV. Her old neighborhood is now occupied by Russian troops who were out in the streets, armed, and doing maneuvers. By all accounts this is just to intimidate. It serves no useful military purpose. But Svitlana’s elderly neighbor wasn’t having any of it, and gave them a piece of her mind.
The young Russians who were sent to fight Putin’s war didn’t quite know what to make of her, so they didn’t really push back, thank goodness. At the end of her tirade, she proffered the troops some sunflower seeds, the traditional symbol of peace. That's when Svitlana’s neighbor told the young recruits to put the seeds in their pockets.
“Then when you die here on our land, sunflowers will grow out of your corpses,” she taunted.
So sunflower seeds are now the symbol of resistance and solidarity.
It was all over the news. Did you see it?
Today I am taking solace in the small steps and brave actions of so many. Svitlana’s neighbor was certainly brave! I think I would have been hiding someplace as far away as I could get. This war has already gone on far too long and been far more violent than most would have expected.
I heard a story about Ukrainians switching all the road signs around to confuse the invading troops. I wonder if they just had them going around and around in circles? It’s good to find something to laugh about in all this.
Here Russian vodka has been removed from the shelves, but we do not have to make the great personal sacrifices that the Poles do. Are Polish people worn out from the heavy burden of providing shelter for their Ukrainian guests?
Thank you for providing what we cannot.
Thinking of you and your Ukrainian family.
No one here is tiring of our Ukrainian guests. On the contrary! We are aware of how weary they are and how much they long to return home, but it is simply not safe and we are happy to have them.
Please don’t make me out to be some sort of hero. Everyone in town has accepted refugees and my daughter’s school has a vibrant parent community to support them. It takes a village.
Em, I have a favor to ask you. I am sending you a picture of Kateryna’s doll. Could you have a look around and see if there is a place you can order replacement parts? She says she wants to keep her doll even if her arm is missing, but she seems sadder these days and I’m thinking if her doll could get better, so could she.
I’m on it. -Em
Today I learned that Kateryna is not the only child who seems a bit down these days. Many of the children are missing their fathers and older brothers who they’ve left behind. When children ask when they can return home, some of the mothers tell their children they’ll return soon. Others say nothing. And a few, say ‘never’.
Many places in Ukraine have limited electricity and some form of curfew, so communicating with loved ones has gotten more difficult. Svitlana has had no news from her husband for over a week now. She goes about with a strained look on her face. She is consumed with worry but does not want to talk about it with the children.
I have to say my little Ukrainian family has truly become part of ours, but it is Kateryna who has stolen my heart. When she first came to us, she didn’t know whether she should call me Auntie, or big Sister. Now she calls me Mama two.
How are things with you? Beata
Every time I hear about the generosity of the Polish people opening up their homes, it warms my heart. The kind acts seem to multiply exponentially, putting a touch of humanity on an otherwise tragic situation.
Still looking for an arm for the doll.
Sending love, Em
It’s the beginning of December and that means St. Nicolas Day is around the corner. We have decided to make it a bit more elaborate this year since we could all use some cheering up. I am teaching the girls, mine and Svitlana’s, how to make pierniczki gingerbread cookies.
Some of the mothers have transformed the school cafeteria into a winter wonderland where there will be entertainment and games. Traditional ones, not the video kind.
The children wrote letters to Santa at school today and they will deliver them in person tonight. The whole neighborhood is looking forward to it -a bright spot as the war drags on into winter.
Em! The most remarkable thing happened at the celebration last night. When we entered the cafeteria, it was as if we had set foot into a magical, Disney-like place. Snowflakes hung from the ceiling and a small ice rink had been set up outside so the children could skate.
An enormous Christmas tree stood in the center of the room and under the tree was a grand piano with Santa Claus playing Christmas carols. I think you know who Santa Claus was! Occasionally Santa would take a break to read their letters and dispense gifts to the children. Months of gloom seemed to evaporate.
Kateryna was once again drawn to the music and the look of awe on her face when she saw Santa playing Ukrainian carols, along with the Polish ones, was too precious. Her English has come along since attending school and she and Santa had quite an exchange.
Kateryna gave her letter to Santa and this is what it said:
Dear Santa Claus,
Everyone thinks I want a doll for Christmas. But I don’t. I am six and a half now and I’m too old to play with dolls. But I can’t leave mine behind because it’s the only thing I have from home. I like it here, everyone is nice to us, but I miss my home and I miss Papa. Sometimes I forget what home looks like, and that’s why I like to have my doll with me. Because then I can remember how good it was to be at home with all my things and with Papa. I don’t need a new doll.
Mama says our house is broken now. That a bomb went off and broke everything-the walls, the windows, and even my bed. So, I am glad my doll was not there. At least here with me she is just a little bit broken. And I am glad that Papa is alright and that the bomb did not break him. Olena and I both miss Papa very much, but I think I miss him more.
There is only one thing I want for Christmas, but it is a big thing and I don’t know if I can get it. Let me know if you think I can.
When he finished reading her letter, Santa told her that she could have her gift if she really wanted it, and if all her friends really wanted it, and the grownups too. Then it would be possible. And do you know what our little Kateryna wanted?
Peace on Earth.
Let’s hope she gets it.
Merry Christmas! Beata
* * * * *
If you are wondering why this story is labeled as both fiction and non-fiction, it is because many parts of it are true.
Beata, my amazing Polish writing partner, hosted a family of Ukrainian refugees when they poured across the border, as did most of the families in her town. A lot of the letters are taken verbatim from emails that we exchanged.
Davide Martello, the Italian piano player, did indeed drive 13 hours with his grand piano in tow to offer music and respite at the border to people ravaged by war.
Olga, the Ukrainian woman with the sunflower seeds, is very real, but her name probably is not. Try as I might, I could not find any reference to her name in various news sources, but she is emblematic of so many brave acts of resistance that were inspired by Ukrainians deep love of their country.
As for Kateryna, she represents many of the Ukrainian children whose lives have been permanently altered by the ongoing conflict. And her Christmas gift? Well, if we all try hard enough, maybe one day this gift can come true.