To my daughters Sophia and Emma,
I want you to know that although you are both Americans, your soul is Ukraine, like mine.
Last month, I started watching the news closely. I was very concerned, calling and checking up on our loved ones in Ukraine.
I kept asking them, “What do you think? What do you think?”
No one anticipated what would soon happen. Late February, I was watching the news, and the Ukrainian ambassador pleaded with the Russian ambassador to call the president and prime minister to call off this war. Then, Russia’s President Vladamir Putin announced a “special military operation” against Ukraine – a war, an attack on our country.
Throughout the last few weeks, there have been so many emotions, including grief, disbelief, shock, and anger. As you know, I came to the United States in February of 1999 when I was 16 years old. Our family was in search of a better life – the American dream. But I still have so many wonderful memories of Ukraine. I am from western Ukraine, a town called Ternopil, about an hour and a half east of Lviv.
I grew up knowing and believing that Ukraine is its own country with its own culture. It has its own language that is not a dialect of Russian and it has a rich history of literature, written and spoken word. Throughout my childhood, my family instilled in me values that included working hard, loving fully, and accepting everyone.
To this day, I can close my eyes and see a beautiful summer day with my grandmother. Together, we read a lot of books. Also, I would play with my friend in the yard, and pick strawberries and apples in my grandmother’s dacha, a plot of land outside of the city where she would grow fruit and vegetables. My favorite childhood memories were celebrations where we ate cake with plums and danced. We danced a lot.
Sadly, the wonderful memories I carry are a far cry from the current state of Ukraine. As much as I can, I call our family in Ukraine. Three or four times a day, they are called into bomb shelters. They are told to keep their lights off at night to avoid Russian bombers. One night I called, and our family was all huddled in the bathroom. The bathroom was the only room they could turn on the light because it’s the only room in the house without windows.
In the background, I heard my cousin tell her eight-year-old son, “Brush your teeth so your teeth are nice and healthy, and you look super handsome before we have to go down to the shelter again.”
She’s trying so hard to keep some normalcy for her children, who are now children of war.
Unfortunately, they are not the first to be exposed to war and violence in our family. There is a long history of conflict between Russia and Ukraine. In the Ukrainian genocide of Holodomor, Joseph Stalin tried to eliminate Ukrainians by starving them to death. Millions of Ukrainians died.
Among them were members of our family.
Your great great grandfather was part German, and he had dual citizenship. The Stalinist regime accused him of being a spy because he had dual citizenship and traveled to Germany and Poland for work. Captured when your great-great-grandmother was pregnant, they sent him to a work extermination camp in Siberia, and no one ever heard from him again. The Stalinist regime killed his brother too. Also, your grandmother, Oksana, was named in honor of your great grandfather’s aunt who, along with her family, was killed by Stalin after being deemed the “enemy of the people” because she and her family supported the independent Ukraine movement in the 1930’s.
Now, almost a century later, our relatives are hiding in basements and fighting against a similar enemy. While I feel so much heartbreak right now, I also feel inspired
Professionals, military personnel, and everyday civilians are all stepping up courageously to fight and defend our country. They are fighting fearlessly and with remarkable resilience. They are fighting for their land, home, culture, freedom, and most of all, they are fighting for each other.
I know we are here in America. Neither of you have ever been to Ukraine.I have made a life here, marrying your father, having both of you, and working as a professor at a nearby University. Even so, there is a strong sense of family in Ukraine, not just with close blood relatives but also among the larger Ukrainian community. You are a part of that family and a part of my history and Ukrainian history. It is so important that you learn your history so you can not only help create a better future, but so you know who you are and where you are from.
One of Kiev’s famous Ukrainian statues is a woman holding a shield and a sword. That’s how Ukrainian people see themselves now. They’re the shield of the free world.
As young girls who will grow up to be women, I hope you know that you can stand up for yourselves and others and fight against leaders who try to threaten the world’s geopolitics. Your history should give you the courage and confidence to pursue a limitless future.
Like the Ukrainians around the globe, the power to impact the world is in your soul. That’s because a Ukrainian soul is filled with hope and love. And as we pray for our family and our country, we must remember that hope and love are far greater energies than hate and fear.
I love you,