I have been thinking a lot about my grandfather over the past two weeks. I have been having dreams about him and our conversations. Dreams so real I feel as if I could reach out and touch his hand – feel his wrinkled and weathered skin – his warmth. In the last week those dreams have intensified.
There has been one surprising change – the grandfather sitting across from me in my dreams – is not the white haired man in tailored slacks and polo shirt that held me as a child. He is not the man I see in photos on my walls. No, he is 12, 14 or maybe even 15 – muddied face, dirty clothes and curly brown hair.
He does not hesitate in his words – they are direct and purposeful. He tells me he is hungry – they are running out of food. He tells me he is afraid of the explosions – the gunfire. He tells me there is glass on the floors and no one goes to school. They sleep in the basement or in the bathtub. His brothers – my uncles – have taken up arms to defend the city. Their mother – my great grandmother – held their hands at the bus station – tears rolling down her face – not wanting to let them go.
The local hospital has moved the patients into the basement. Children are being born amidst the shaking of explosions.
My dreams have transported my 15 year-old grandfather 80 years into the future. The details are different, but the story and country are the same – a dictator has invaded. And it breaks my heart. These dreams and my grandfather’s 15 year-old face wake me constantly. I wake up in a sweat and hold back my tears.
It is like I am losing him all over again.
My grandfather referred to the little villages just outside of Zaporozhe, Ukraine as his ‘beating heart.’ Nikopol and Molochansk live and lived at the forefront of both our minds – we called them, ‘home.’
When we went back together and he got off the plane in Zaporozhe or in Kyiv – he instantly became 20 years younger. There was something about the people, the language and the soil that breathed life into my 80 year-old grandfather’s aging lungs.
When he died in 2014 I found myself desperately needing to get back there – to breathe that air again. I needed to feel the dirt between my toes, the sun on my face, the grasses amongst my fingers and taste the beer on my lips. I was so proud to take my wife there in 2015 – to show her where my hero grew up.
In 2022 – the desire to go back is stronger than ever – to bring my wife and now our two girls ‘home’ and show them where we come from. This is everything to me.
But in 2022, our home, our village and our people are hurting. The people of Ukraine are bleeding.
And this pain I feel is but a pin prick compared to what Ukrainians are feeling today.
About a month ago – before the return of war – I was asked by my place of employment to present a speech that was meant to inspire someone. It seemed obvious to me that I would share part of my grandfather’s story – for it was him, his village and the people that inspired me.
My grandfather grew up on the banks of the Dnieper River – penniless and on the brink of starvation. He was forced to fight in the war. He made it to Canada – learned the language, got married, had children – grandchildren. He started a successful construction company and travelled the world. He did and went through things no one should ever have to.
But he never forgot about, ‘home.’
In the late 90s he and like minded Canadians went back to the small villages and bought a former Mennonite school and renovated it. They used the school as a launching pad to provide humanitarian aid to the destitute that live in and near their former communities. For 15 years my grandfather was a board member of The Friends of the Mennonite Center in Ukraine (FOMCU). He wanted to give back to the people that lost so much. His history, his home and his past shaped him. And he didn’t want future children to lose their childhood like he did.
Following my grandfather’s death I took over his seat on the board. I fell in love with the people, the language and the country. Ukraine became my, ‘beating heart.’
They need us now more than ever.
What is happening now?
On February 23, 2022, one of our local directors, Oksana attempted to flee the country with her husband and three children. She called us from the train – 20 minutes before arriving in Kyiv – telling us war had started. She could hear the explosions. She didn’t know what to do.
In that moment – I thought about my great-grandmother. I thought about the fear she must have had when the bombs started to drop in Nikopol 80 years ago. Eighty years apart and the same fear exists – how do I protect my children?
A few days later (Feb 26) our board-chair sent this email –
“Woke up this morning to see a series of texts from Oksana. All times are local Winnipeg times.
> At 2:19 AM she wrote that Molochansk is under attack.
> At 4:16 AM she wrote that the Prischib dormitory was it. The bridge at Vinogradne village was destroyed.
> MC basement is used for shelter for our staff
> Russian tanks are all over Molochansk
> I am thinking of getting a ticket to Vancouver
> We are on our way to the Polish border.
> At 6:38 she wrote Tokmak is under attack”
It took the better part of five days to travel from Molochansk to Kyiv to Poland and finally to Canada. Through that entire time – via computer – Oksana still approved humanitarian projects for the communities. This country and these people are braver than I can imagine.
Oksana is now safe. Her children are safe. Her husband had to stay behind – men aged 18-60 must stay and protect the country. At the Polish border they had to say goodbye.
Russian forces now occupy Molochansk and the area around our centre. Road blocks are up and a bridge near the Mennonite Centre was destroyed. Explosions and gunfire are heard close-by. Tanks and trucks roam the streets. There is fighting in Zaporozhe. The phones go in and out, but the Internet is still operational.
м. Молочанськ, Запорізька область pic.twitter.com/D0wEagODMQ— Батькович (@tacbeard) February 27, 2022
Many of our staff are still there – not able to leave. They continue to provide for the communities. When there are explosions they hide in the basement and have invited frightened members of the community to join them.
We continue to cook daily meals for the community. Before the war it used to be only a weekly meal for seniors – but we extended it to anyone in need. We wisely stocked our pantries before war began – but supplies wont last long.
We have collaborated with the mayor of our village to start a soup kitchen to feed the communities. Our longtime cook – tells us we have enough right now – but the shelves at the stores are bare.
Near the Donetsk border in the village of Krasnogoravka a church has become the community centre for people in need. Our network has reached out to this community quite regularly since 2014 (when Russian separatists began their attacks and annexation).
We have two program directors from Ukraine – Olga – who is safe – got a call two weeks ago that they were without electricity and could not access water from a well. We provided financial assistance to get them power.
When the war started last week – the church started providing food for the community. We assisted in making sure the community was fed – our team made hampers and made sure children had bread.
It is here – that I see my grandfather’s face.
The second week of war
Olga – one of our project manager is getting inundated with requests. She was out of country on vacation with her family when war began. She has her computer and speaks to friends, neighbours and contacts daily, but wishes she was there to physically help.
She talks with contacts and arranges for funds to be transferred to purchase food and supplies.
Kharkiv has been hit the hardest – holding on by a thread. But they hold on. The resiliency of this country is on full display.
Olga writes –
Today is March the 3d – the 8th day of the war. As Oksana is in Canada and can transfer money today we managed to transfer some money to 2 organizations and 7 individuals. Three individual aids are in a row. I hope Oksana will be able to transfer money still today, then it will be 10 individual aids. These are all vulnerable families. I am in contact with ****, our auditor. She monitor the needs locally and provide me with necessary information to transfer money. I sent money to “All-Ukrainian Platform for improvement of the society “ – 20,000 uah (I sent 10,000 uah yesterday and Oksana add another 10,000 uah today.) They are located not far from Kharkiv. The situation in Kharkiv is probably the worst. They receive people who are fleeing, feed them, they can sleep there and they take people to Western Ukraine. They still can buy food in villages from people. Gasoline is a problem, but they find ways.
The situation changes very fast. I ask to send pictures. I hope to get them soon. That’s it for now.
This is what our president – said today:
“We do not have a huge territory – from ocean to ocean, we do not have nuclear weapons, we do not fill the world market with oil and gas. But we have our people and our land. For us, this is gold. We have nothing to lose but our own freedom and dignity. For us, this is the greatest treasure. They wanted to destroy us so many times, but they could not. They wanted to wipe it off the face of the earth, but they didn’t succeed. They hit us in the back, but we stand on our feet. They wanted us to be silent, but the whole world heard us. We’ve been through so often! And if someone thinks that, having overcome all this, Ukrainians – all of us – will get scared, break down or give up – he knows nothing about Ukraine, and he has nothing to do in Ukraine.”
Like so many – I am glued to my phone. I await for the most recent BBC News update. I scroll through war-reporters live-feeds on the ground.
I knew the Russians were fighting near and in Zaporozhe – I have friends there – hiding in basements – waiting for help – waiting for it to be over.
“Russian Army is firing from all sides upon Zaporizhzhia NPP, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. Fire has already broke out.”
“What fresh hell is this?” my spouse heard me say.
At every turn of this war I am reminded of my grandfather and our family ties to this beautiful country. Throughout the day I have to stop and hold back tears. My mother shares the same sentiment.
“We experienced a night that could have stopped the history of Ukraine and Europe.”Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky
In the 1980s Mikhail Gorbachev’s new policies of Glasnost and Perestroika opened doors for my grandfather’s construction company to begin working in the Soviet Union.
In 1984 Ukraine began construction of the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. My grandfather’s construction company, Central Canadian Structures, was contracted to assist in the building of the power plant – I believe he assisted in unit 6 in 1995. He built numerous projects in Ukraine. I wish I asked him more questions about this project and others of the area.
After his death I wish I kept more newspaper clippings than I did. It is silly, but last night as I watched a live feed of explosions around this plant I felt pangs of guilt for not keeping those clippings – like it would somehow help if I could hold them in my hands. But, there is only so much one can keep.
Glasnost policies were spikes driven into the former Iron Curtain – fracturing the walls that kept people and their suffering hidden away. This war and attacks on the Zaporozhe NPP are the attempts to construct a new curtain that would destroy 30 years of progress. And risk millions of lives in the process.
What can we do?
In the darkness – we need to provide a light.
I have moments of feeling helpless – not knowing what to do. But we can help! Make your voice heard – show solidarity.
We need to continue to be the light. I ask individuals to donate to the Red Cross, to NGO’s, to FOMCU. We can bring direct aid to the people that need it. People are seeing the messages and it fuels their resiliency.
If you would like to donate please click the link below – FOMCU makes it easy to donate. Our team is working tirelessly to do everything we can. Even if this war is ‘short,’ rebuilding this country will not be.
Embrace this country – embrace our people – embrace our village.
Моє серце, що б’ється, тримайся. Ми з тобою.HelpForUkraine.ca