Someone recently asked me why I’d stopped writing. In light of what has been happening in Ukraine, the country that I’ve called home for almost two decades, I had trouble comprehending why an explanation was even necessary. But since I didn’t want to embarrass my friend by stating what felt painfully obvious to me (“…my life turned completely upside down on February 24, 2022, and I’m still trying to figure out which way is up…”), I just said (truthfully) that I’d been really busy.
Becoming a refugee, trying to get my bearings in a new foreign country, rebuilding our life, and figuring out what our new normal is haven’t left me the time or mental capacity to write for this blog for over five months. So much has happened during that time. It feels like years rather than months since we fled Ukraine in response to explosions and air raid sirens all over the country.
Today, right now, the most difficult part of this experience is the grief over all our fractured relationships. Prior to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, we were living in a charming district of downtown Kyiv, with many friends living within walking distance. Over the years of being a part of the life of this neighborhood, we had formed a tight-knit community of friends who loved to hang out. We frequently came together to eat and laugh and play and share stories. Whenever we were together, the light and love were almost tangible, or as one friend recently put it when he was reminiscing about those days, “There was so much energy in your apartment!”
But then—in one moment—our cozy life was shattered, and all those relationships fractured, as we were forced apart with almost no warning. The hardest separations to accept are not those with our friends who are still in Ukraine, because for the most part, we know where these people are, and in many cases, we are still in regular contact. Seeing these friends again seems more realistic, because we still hold out hope of one day moving back to Ukraine. The hardest thing is thinking about all our friends who, like us, fled the violence in Ukraine and have ended up scattered across Europe and North America.
Today my barely-6-year-old asked me yet again when he was going to see Luka, his favorite play buddy who lived in our neighborhood in downtown Kyiv.
“Can I share this candy with him when I see him?” he asked, holding up an open package of Sour Patch Kids.
“And he told me that they don’t usually have chips at their house, so maybe I could give him my chips,” he added hopefully, rummaging in his backpack and producing a snack-sized bag of potato chips that he had been saving for a special occasion.
I had to tell him again that I didn’t even know what country Luka and his family were in, and I had no idea “when” we would see him again. I couldn’t bring myself to say “if,” although that was the word in my mind.
As I told my little boy these things, I felt tears starting to rise again, crowding the breath out of my throat. He should not have been forced to leave his friends without warning or a chance to say goodbye. It is wrong and unnatural and something that no 5-year-old should ever have to endure. (This child of mine was still 5 when we fled Ukraine.)
Wrenchingly, I have to admit that it’s partially my fault that he didn’t get to say goodbye. When my three youngest kids and I boarded a train from Kyiv to the city of Ternopil in Western Ukraine, it was still three days before Putin’s invasion. We weren’t fleeing explosions—we were simply taking precautions. We could have notified all our friends of our departure and made a point to say goodbye to everyone, but I was trying to downplay things for the sake of the kids, and I honestly thought we’d only be gone for a few weeks. We would visit our relatives in Ternopil while we waited for tensions on the border with Russia to calm down, and then we’d go back home. We didn’t believe there would be a large-scale invasion of Ukraine or that Kyiv would ever be threatened.
My three older boys had relocated to Ternopil a few weeks earlier, and they also did not have a chance to say goodbye to friends. Two of their uncles had visited us in Kyiv for a weekend, and on the day they left to drive back to Ternopil, my husband and I made a last-minute decision to send our three older boys with them. So the last time they saw their friends was on the last day of school before yet another school closure due to COVID. When their classmates went back to school, our boys did their best to keep up by texting their peers for the homework assignments—but they didn’t return to Kyiv, and it wasn’t too much later that we found ourselves fleeing the country. We have since reconnected with my 11-year-old’s best friend. He and his mother ended up in a tiny Polish village, and we all met up in Cracow, a Polish city about halfway between their village and our apartment in Budapest, Hungary. We were able to spend a few days together, and it was therapeutic for all of us.
The rest of our kids’ closest friends (and cousins) from Ukraine are either still in Ukraine, or they are in Belgium, Germany, France, the U.K., the U.S., and Canada. While it’s theoretically possible that we could visit them all, it’s wildly unlikely, and even if we do visit, the sad reality is that those relationships will probably never grow into what they could have been if we hadn’t all been torn away from each other. Each arrested friendship feels like yet another casualty of this war.
About two months ago, finally realizing that even if the war ended tomorrow, it would be impossible to get back the life we had before, I started to grieve all that was stolen from us. My children’s innocence. Our sense of security. Our stability. A quaint neighborhood that we adored. A rhythm of life that we loved. A close-knit community of friends who were always in and out of our apartment.
I have been grieving for two months, and now I am angry. I have felt powerless, pushed around by the swirling currents of chaotic events, for too long, and now I am ready to rise up. After February 24, I became a passive observer of my own life, and now I want to become an active participant again. I have been the victim, and now I will become the victor. So much has been taken from us, but as of today, I refuse to allow Putin’s war to steal our friendships as well. I will find a way—despite separation, different time zones, and uncertain futures—to keep these relationships vital and growing.
And I’m going to start by tracking down Luka’s parents and setting up a video call so that he and my 6-year-old can reconnect.
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