Nearly four years ago, my husband Val and I visited the Ukrainian capitol of Kyiv together. This trip had been a long-time interest of ours. Val had lived in Kyiv as a young man back in 1993, right after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and in our 20+ years of marriage I had heard many of his stories. Both of us were eager to go and see Kyiv for what it had meant to Val back then, and also find out what had become of it.
We had tried to head that direction in 2014, but tension between Ukraine and Russia had risen at the beginning of that year and had resulted in territory in eastern Ukraine being occupied by Russia. We avoided making the trip at that time, expecting travel to Ukraine and its neighboring countries to be unsafe.
Russia and Ukraine have a history of conflict. Generally, Russia has been the aggressor or exploiter, as in the days of the Russian Empire, after the Communist Revolution and during Stalin’s reign of terror in the ’40s and ’50s. Ukraine enjoyed a number of years of independence in the decades following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but they’ve remained wary of their eastern neighbor; always a possible threat.
The tension in 2014 began when Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, had given way to pressure from Russia not to sign political association and trade agreements with the EU. This sparked numerous Ukrainian groups to protest, with allegations of corruption, abuse of power, police brutality, and human rights violations on the part of President Yanukovych and his administration. As protests spread, they became increasingly more violent. In January and February of 2014, the Berkut special riot police became engaged in a bloody conflict with the protesters known as the ‘EURO-Maidan Revolution‘ or ‘The Revolution of Dignity.’
Val and I watched this on the internet, with horror, from our home safe in the Netherlands.
Having considered the overthrow of Yanukovych as a military coup, Russia troops entered Ukraine from the east and annexed the Ukrainian region called Crimea, and supported a separatist movements in eastern Ukrainian districts of Donetsk and Lugansk. Ukraine lost control of a good deal of land in that year, but eventually things settled down.
By 2018, things seemed calm enough for Val and I to travel there. More and more tourists were visiting Kyiv, a new Hungarian airline called Wizz Air was scheduling easy flights from western Europe to connections that far east, and nostalgia beckoned us toward Ukraine. We finally did go in the Spring of that year, and in Kyiv we found a peaceful and inviting environment: incredible architecture, inexpensive and delicious food, a city with a lot of soul, and kind friends. Val blogged about it on our site and an article he wrote about it was featured on a large travel site called Cheeseweb.
Here’s a glimpse of ta few of the interesting things we saw there:
Ukraine’s history and cultural offerings fascinated me. Visiting these places offered me a glimpse into a whole new world of cultural wealth, heroism and resilience. From the chats we had with residents of Kyiv during our trip, it became evident to us that the Euro-Maidan Revolution had really bolstered national solidarity for Ukrainians. The Ukrainian people have suffered unimaginable wrongs by Russia and other invaders over the centuries, yet they have perpetually come out stronger, more united, and more sure of themselves as a nation.
After we returned home from our travels, I made a video about Kyiv, which touches on the history, culture, and political situation in 2018. You can view it here:
Later in 2018 Val again traveled to Ukraine for book research. His historical thrillers set in Russia and eastern European settings, brought him to Lviv, Ukraine, a western city with a more central-European feel. There he learned more about the western part of Ukraine, a region which was once called Ruthenia. You can read about his Lviv explorations HERE.
On the same trip he also interviewed a number of people in Kyiv connected with the EURO-Maidan Revolution, bringing out further information and perspectives on that struggle. He made contacts there that have kept him updated on the political climate in Ukraine as tension with Russia has continued.
Late in February of this year, we again watched in horror as Russia invaded the whole of Ukraine. The conflict continues, and the entire world has its eyes on Ukraine, offering limited but helpful help from outside, as it defends itself. Towns are being bombed, civilians killed and displaced, businesses destroyed, and land occupied.
We’ve feared for our friends and have been doing all we can to help them. Val contacted a friend he knew from his interviews in 2018, who had begun working in Poland with refugee aid services. With her help, he was able to send funds and arrange for safe evacuations for a few different people.
We wanted to do more. When the Dutch government began to encourage Dutch residents to invite refugees into their homes, we felt we needed to help in this way. We offered our home as a refuge for a young Ukrainian woman, the daughter of friends from Val’s Kyiv days in the 90s, and began looking for others we could house in our somewhat empty home.
When we heard that our young Ukrainian friend was stuck in Poland at the very end of February, Val and our adult son left almost immediately to meet her. They drove most of the night, trading off turns driving. They eventually did find her in Krakow, a bit shaken up, but putting on a brave face and determined to venture west. I made up a bed in our guest room, with a Ukrainian flag blanket made by Val’s mom when he lived there in the 90s.
“They did eventually find her in Krakow, a bit shaken up, but putting on a brave face and determined to venture west. I made up a bed in our guest room with a Ukrainian flag blanket…”
A few weeks later, our refugee’s friend, another young woman in her 20s, came to join us here in the Netherlands as well. We’ve been working to help them get set up with mobile and internet service, public transportation (which we found is free for all Ukrainians with passport here), clothing, food, friend networks, vaccinations, and so forth. They are keeping themselves and us well informed of the developments as they unfold.
We are also doing what we can to help them be comfortable and learn more about their homeland. One weekend recently we made Ukrainian ‘Vareniki’ and ‘Borsch’ (Ukrainian dumplings and beet soup) with one of them as a comforting sign from home. We’ve been showing them a bit of our area and giving them plenty of time to rest.
We’ve been encouraged by the outpouring of friendship, support, and solidarity exhibited by our Dutch and American friends and the international community as a whole. We’ve been seeing our contacts open their homes to Ukrainians, donating generously to aid funds, and donating goods and time to helping these victims of brutality.
Many local groups in our area in the Netherlands have sprung up to help the influx of refugees arriving. Oekraine Maastricht and Get the Angels Out are two groups that have done good things: transporting refugees from Ukraine to the Netherlands, organizing donation drives, and setting up events to help keep the atmosphere fun and light for Ukrainian families, just to name a few examples. The local municipalities are setting up emergency shelters and giving support to private residents to house refugees in their homes. Schools have been calling for supplies to be donated for use by the displaced.
We have also been amazed by the generosity of our American friends who have wanted to donate financially to this cause. Their donations helped to fund our rescue trip to Poland, and help other refugees get needed supplies.
More people have been asking us, ‘where can I donate so that I know that my funds will be used directly for the refugees?’ The refugees living in our home have been keeping us well updated about what is helpful from the Ukrainian side. The site they recommend to help you give safe, helpful donations is HERE.
These people are extremely grateful for the help that is being offered. Over four million have left Ukraine, and millions more have remained at home in perilous circumstances. Their lives have changed forever, but with our help they can find a new course, and hope.
We encourage you to do whatever you can to help the people of Ukraine!