George’s alarm went off at 6:30 am. He roused himself from his bed on the floor in the open kitchen area. The apartment was dark and quiet. He quickly gathered his few belongings and put them back in his backpack. He visited the bathroom and combed his hair. Breakfast and coffee were not on the agenda, and he was soon ready to leave.
No Man’s Land, Dzvinkove Border Crossing, Ukraine February 25, 2022, 6:00 pm
The sun went down on us as we waited to cross the Hungarian border. The sky slowly faded to black, and still the single-file line of cars stretched far in front of us. Eventually we reached a place where we could see the Hungarian checkpoint. It looked so close, but we knew that it could still take hours to reach it. Even though it was now in sight, I was reluctant to leave the cozy atmosphere of the van to go stand in line with the other people crossing on foot. But eventually I could put it off no longer. We knew that our ride was in position on the other side, and by calling and watching to see who answered a phone and began talking, we were even able to identify our driver and his van. I gathered my kids and grabbed a blanket or two to ward off the cold, and we walked to the end of the pedestrian line. Like the line of cars, it was much longer and moving much slower than its counterpart on the Ukrainian side of the border.
George had been having a very different experience from us. After we had said goodbye on the call early that morning, he left our apartment with Olya to find some way to rendezvous with Anastasia and her son and get out of Kyiv. Because of the curfew still in effect, he didn’t know how they were going to get to the pick-up point and whether or not stairs might be involved, so George ditched the small suitcase he had packed for his evacuation and emptied almost everything out of his backpack. He has a congenital spinal condition that acts up anytime he lifts anything over 15 pounds, so he couldn’t take a heavy backpack or risk having to carry his rolling suitcase up or down stairs. As a result, he left home with nothing but the clothes on his back, his phone and laptop, his wallet and documents, and a few changes of socks and underwear.
The train ride west from Kyiv took about seven hours. When we arrived in the city of Ternopil that night, fellow passengers helped me lift the kids and our stuff down the high steps of the old-fashioned train wagon. One of my brothers-in-law found us on the crowded platform. He had our three oldest kids with him. We all hugged, and the big boys took our bags.
We meet lots of refugees from Ukraine here in Budapest. It’s easy. All you have to do is go to a park and listen for people speaking Ukrainian or Russian. Then you ask them where they’re from and how they ended up in Budapest. People are desperate to tell their refugee stories. They often start with the morning of February 24, 2022, with the moment they realized war had started.
This is my story, but to tell it properly, I have to go back to the moment when I first started to take the threat of invasion seriously.
Despite all the upheaval and change that have characterized our life for the past 13 months, my husband George has been thriving. After he managed to get out of Ukraine in the wee hours of day 3 of the war and reunite with the kids and me, he went to bed, utterly exhausted. But he only slept for a few hours, and when he woke up, he immediately found himself surrounded by amazing opportunities to do enormous good. Without pausing to catch his breath or even missing a beat, he jumped into a swirl of activities and new partnerships that resulted in hundreds of evacuations in the critical early weeks of the war, millions of dollars of aid to the people of Ukraine, and ongoing care for the long-term needs of refugees in Hungary and elsewhere in Europe.
Last December I took my eldest son to a Christmas concert performed by a gospel choir here in Budapest. We personally know the director of the choir, and their annual Christmas concert was something about which we’d heard great reports for years but which we’d never had the opportunity to attend. This year’s concert was doubly special, because it was their first since COVID.
It was a wonderful performance, full of energy, passion, and fun. In one of his comments to the audience, the director mentioned that they were an amateur choir, and they accepted anyone, even people who couldn’t sing. As I sat there, swaying to the beat and thoroughly enjoying the music, I glanced at my then 15-year-old son, a music lover who had been in a choir in Ukraine, and I suddenly had an idea. I started to lean over to say something in his ear, but half a moment later, I stopped myself and sat still in my seat, feeling shaken, stunned, and confused.
Over the last few months, I’ve written three posts that chronicle how we have been coping with all the unwanted changes in our life brought on by the war in Ukraine. While these months have been difficult, the overall tone of my writing is positive. In fact, my husband thinks that the second of those three posts is the most inspiring thing I’ve ever written. But today I want to start to tell the other side of the story. Yes, I firmly believe we are going to make it, and I know we have a future and a hope, but that doesn’t mean the here and now isn’t agonizing.
I have always suspected that children are far more resilient than most adults give them credit for. My experience of navigating early tragedy supported this theory (my mom died when I was 5), and now I’ve had a chance to observe my own children coping with loss and grave difficulty.
Our life was a beautiful dream. Every time I walked the streets around the converted old mansion that housed our apartment in downtown Kyiv, I found myself thanking God that we got to live in this charming district, filled with historic buildings and dotted with trendy cafes, interesting restaurants, and all sorts of shops. We had a close-knit church family who all lived within walking distance and a wider community of friends who were in and out of our home on a regular basis. To top it all off, our new landlords had told us that we could stay in their apartment for at least 5 years, and we planned to do precisely that. We had moved 14 times since getting married 18 years earlier, and now, we were finally settled. I couldn’t have been more pleased or content.