“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” — Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl
Several years ago, my husband came to me with a proposal to move overseas for the company where he works. It had long been a dream of ours to get to move overseas with our family for an expatriate assignment for his job — but we knew there were certain locations that wouldn’t be suitable for families with young children, like ours.
We had often talked about the options. Of course there were ideal expat places like Singapore or Geneva, and then there were the others, places with crushing pollution or third-world living conditions. The less desirable locations, we knew, were most likely to become available. And one of those did.
Nikopol, Ukraine: a southern city, isolated from most outer influence, near the region of Crimea. We had been chosen to move there for a large factory construction project for the company where my husband works.
I didn’t know much about Ukraine at the time, except for the book by Tom Rob Smith, CHILD 44, which doesn’t paint a beautiful picture of the country, but I was open to moving there.
Several weeks of intense research and travel followed, as we considered every angle on the move. A few problems prevented us from moving there in the end: I would’ve had to have homeschooled our three sons in a very small Soviet-style apartment; tuberculosis was rampant in the local area; and the transportation in and out of Nikopol in a health emergency would’ve taken a day, not hours. We had to say no.
Soon after, we were asked about moving to Prague, Czech Republic, which wasn’t too far from Ukraine, but was a much better fit for our family. We moved there in 2009 and loved it, and moved home to the US in 2013. It was a wonderful experience which changed us all.
While we lived in Prague, our middle son, in 6th grade while at the International School of Prague, was selected to be on the middle school soccer team, which was a huge honor (Europeans are great at soccer (futbol)). For the tournament that year, the team traveled to Kiev, Ukraine, for four days. That meant our son had the opportunity of traveling to Ukraine by himself (and team). The experience opened his eyes and he often talks about the things he saw and experienced while there– the razor-wire fences and slum-like conditions, the packs of wild dogs running through the city, the opulence of the hosts’ home where he stayed. It was a different world for him.
Our Polish neighbor introduced us to Karolina* in the first week we lived in Prague. Karolina became the reliable person who swooped in once a week to help with the mopping (always-open windows with no screens meant very dirty floors), babysitting, and dog-sitting when we needed it. She made the time in Prague so much better than it would’ve been without her. She became family to us. And, listening to her stories over the course of the time we lived there, I came to understand a much wider view of the world. Karolina was from Ukraine and spoke almost no English when I knew her.
Every August, Karolina would travel by bus back home to Ukraine to help her family with the potato harvest, as well as give a portion of her own earnings to help support her parents and sister’s family. Her mother did the washing for her sister’s eight children and other family living at their farm, all by hand. She often admitted the men did little to help. And she recalled the explosion from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, as her family farm was close enough to be within the scope of the fallout. She and her family were told nothing about what really happened until weeks after the meltdown.
What impressed me most about Karolina was her faith in God, her relentless and genuine smile, and her hope that one day she would get to live in the United States. She, and everyone she knew, she said, wanted to come to a place where they could find work, live well, and be happy.
The level of corruption and bribery present in Ukraine is not something which is easily imagined from the US side of the Atlantic, nor is the poverty or the irrepressible spirit of hope. It is almost impossible to imagine how difficult it must be to be in Ukraine right now.
Through all of what is going on in Ukraine right now, my heart is with them, as are my prayers. It is a country and region which is ready to move forward and have fresh opportunities, ones not dictated for them. If you can, try to imagine … and remember to pray. They will, hopefully, once and for all, become free.
* (not Karolina’s real name, for her own protection)
Further resources, data on GDP per capita for Poland and Ukraine in US$ from 2004, when Poland entered the EU, to 2012