My "Refugee" Journal

Before and After

This is the baby of our family

It divided our life into before and after.

For the most part, I’ve accepted what happened to us. Life is hard, and tragedy strikes indiscriminately. As a wise man once said, “People ask ‘Why me?’ But I always think, ‘Why not me?’” (The wise man is my dad.) 

What would it have been like if the war had never happened? 

On one hand, I feel like we have very little reason to complain: we’ve been spared much of the pain others have faced. Our home wasn’t destroyed, and our whole family is alive and together. On the other hand, sometimes I get tired of feeling like our life is fractured. Like we were on one plane, then it cracked and spilled us into an alternate existence. 

At those times, I wonder. 

What would it have been like if the war had never happened? 

How would our children’s futures be different? 

Have we adapted adequately to the challenges? 

Today I was sorting through boxes of stuff we brought back from our apartment in Kyiv. I’ve lost count of how many months we’ve had them stacked in our Budapest apartment. They formed a wall almost as tall as I was, and the prospect of diving in and deciding what to keep, what to donate, and what to throw away was so intimidating that I couldn’t bring myself to start. So they just took up floor space, constantly weighing on my mind. We’d learned to live comfortably without whatever they contained, so why should I delve into their contents and submit myself to the chaos of excavating the past?

But now I know of people who could use everything we no longer need, and I have a deadline for finishing the project, because we will be traveling to their city at the end of the week.

As I was sorting, I came across some sheets of white printer paper with my handwriting on them. They were school absence notes. I shook my head in amazement, admiring my pre-war organizational skills—back then I’d been so put together I even had pre-written absence notes. I supposed I’d simply left the date blank to be filled in as needed. But when I looked closer, the dates were already filled in.

I felt like I was seeing ghosts.

The notes informed teachers that my children would be absent from February 14, 2022 to February 25, 2022, due to “family circumstances.” I felt like I was seeing ghosts when I realized the dates coincided with the start of the war. My kids hadn’t even been in Kyiv on those dates. As a precaution, we’d sent them to Western Ukraine to stay with an uncle and aunt in early February, just in case Russia invaded. Their schools had been closed due to COVID. Why did I write notes?

I pieced together my fragmented memories, and I realized their schools reopened shortly after we sent them away. Their teachers must have asked for notes. I have no idea why we never turned them in, but I understand the rationale behind the dates. I chose February 25 as the end date because that was a Friday, and I figured by then, almost two weeks in the future, things would have calmed down enough for us to bring our kids back home to rejoin their classmates on the following Monday. Surely.

But the war started on Thursday, February 24.

Have I grown since our life was upended,
or have I atrophied?

Among the papers in the same box was a sheet which I’d labeled Sabbath Activities. Below, I listed a variety of enjoyable, restful pursuits, so I could be proactive about my days of rest, rather than frittering them away on things that didn’t recharge me. I looked at it and thought, This is what I would have done before. I realized if I’d made a new list before finding this one, I wouldn’t have thought to include over half of the items. Finding it was a good reminder of some things I’ve abandoned and need to reclaim. At the same time, I can think of at least four new activities to add. So have I grown since our life was upended, or have I atrophied?

Sometimes it feels like I can’t really remember who I was back then, before. Other times, it’s like that woman is all I can feel, battering at the confines of her new life, weeping for all she lost, fighting against the after.

Today I was cradling my baby, marveling at how much he is no longer a baby. He just turned six, and he’s looking like an honest-to-goodness little boy, not the baby in my mind. He was only three when we fled Ukraine. As I snuggled him today, I wondered how the current phase of his childhood will affect him long-term.

It’s hard enough growing up as a third-culture kid, but as far as I know, there’s no category for the position he’s in. I have no road map for how to parent him. He’s a third-culture kid who was displaced before he could develop his own unique culture. His four oldest brothers had all absorbed Ukrainian culture and learned the Ukrainian language before we were displaced. But since he hadn’t started kindergarten yet, his exposure to both was extremely limited. Then he was ripped away from the cozy home and circle of friends he knew and dragged into Hungary. Now he’s growing up in yet another foreign culture, but unlike his brothers, he doesn’t have roots in any culture—no grounding or point of reference. I wouldn’t be concerned if he were making connections to our current home, but he’s not.

Our family culture is a mix of American and Ukrainian with a heavy sprinkle of refugee seasoning. We’re displaced people, as are nearly all our friends, and a displaced Ukrainian couple lives in the extra bedroom in our apartment. Is it bewildering to my youngest son, who was too young to grasp the concept of borders and different cultures before we were sucked into a vortex of international conflict? How will his sense of self develop against such an unstable background? How can I support him? 

I could make a list of practical ways to help him assimilate to Hungary. Or I could decide to give him more exposure to Ukrainian culture and language. Or we could cultivate relationships with other English-speaking expat families in Budapest. The sheer variety of approaches and options makes me dizzy. And I have no clue what would be best. 

Today I realized the only thing I know to do is pray. To pray for each of my children as if their lives depended on it. May God in his infinite kindness and wisdom guide them through the turbulent events that have ruptured each of their existences into before and after.

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6 replies on “Before and After”

Well Betty mom used to say, ‘ Don’t worry, kids will grow no matter where they landed.’ I’m sure Isaac will find out which culture to observe. I never dreamed Daniel decided to move to Japan. God has a way to bring up each child. Instead of thinking too much I would suggest just to pray 🙏🏻.

Praise God He is building you all up together. Praying their little eyes see big things from God. They will take nothing for granted and they have you both and each other. This will change them forever but God has you on this course. May they notice and desire what their praying parents are doing, trusting God! Lord Jesus may all they say and do spread hope and joy to everyone struggling. Use them for your purposes and watch over them continually. In Jesus precious name!!

You are absolutely right to pray, God will be there for your family.

You have been displaced, left your home in a war and are living in a different culture and country.

So many people are displaced right now due to war. It would be so hard deciding what is important to take and what you will need for each family member.

Praying for you. I’m in a different stage of life. My husband passed soon to be 4 years ago, my 97 yr old Dad this past April. I live with my 92 yr old Mom. My daughter and her husband are next door with my 19 mo old granddaughter. We live on a farm in southwest Missouri that has been in my family for 4 generations. My Mom and i attend a small local Calvary Chapel church.

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