By Dr. Jaclyn Maria Fowler
Department Chair, English and Literature
Last week, a friend stopped over for a good meal. We drank a little red wine, traded stories, made a few plans and laughed. At the end of the night, I walked out with her. My little Shih-Tzu mix scooted out the open screen door with her to explore the back yard, and I breathed in the cool-cold air of an almost spring night.
It was a perfectly normal night, except that it wasn’t. In the last few years, as the pandemic held us hostage, these once-normal nights have become rarer and rarer.
Little by little, we in the U.S. have begun emerging from the two plus years of forced hibernation. Yet it has been hard not to think of all the other places in the world where people have yet to experience any hope of returning to normalcy, like Ukraine.
As I stared into the starry night in northeastern Pennsylvania, my thoughts traveled to the curvy, cobble-stoned streets of Lviv. There, any sense of normalcy that my Ukrainian friends once knew has vanished as millions of Ukrainians slip across the border and into other countries.
We Have Not Paid Enough Attention to the Activities of Putin and His Cronies
Just as the Ukrainians were beginning their tentative, hopeful emergence from the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the whims of one narcissistic, power-grabbing and desirous-to-be-all-powerful leader stole the promise of a return to normal.
We’ve seen Putin’s power plays before. We’ve watched him brutally and callously drive out the normal of other countries: Chechnya, Syria, and Crimea, to name a few. Sometimes, we paid attention to the atrocities: the carpet-bombing of civilian areas, the targeting of hospitals and health workers, the snipers picking off civilians just trying to escape, and the releasing of lethal gas to kill or control.
Too often, however, we did not. While we were busy living our normal lives, we glanced too rarely at the atrocities committed at the hands of Putin and his cronies, such as Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, and Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus. They have committed a multitude of crimes against men, women and children that rival the number of stars in the sky.
The Brave Ukrainians
While the brave Ukrainians stand strong against the military might of Russia, we in the West have spent our time doomscrolling social media sites and checking our newsfeeds for proof that Kyiv still stands and Zelensky continues to lead the fight. We are riveted to the plight of the Ukrainians seeking to defend their country, their land, their people and their right to freedom.
And while the world watches Ukrainians, the Ukrainians watch the world for proof that someone will come to their aid. In the western city of Lviv, for example, its residents can barely remember what used to pass for normal before the Russians invaded their country 14 days ago.
Fifty miles away from Lviv, ragged and war-weary travelers seek safety and asylum as they cross the border to Poland. They have left their homes, their lives and their pasts. Before they enter Poland, however, they pass through the city of Lviv, changing forever the lives of those that stay.
Life on the Ground in Lviv
In her war journal, my friend, Anastasiia S., has written about the changes in her country and in her city. While bombs have not yet dropped on Lviv, the news of bombing in other places has.
“How do you think how many stories of killed and injured children, pregnant women, volunteers I should read a day to stay in contact with reality and save my mental health at the same time?” she asked. “How many stories of russian idiots I should read to balance my mood?” she said, using the new Ukrainian style of writing all things Russian with a small “r.”
“How many breathing exercises should I do to stay resilient?” Anastasiia S. asked.
Nerves in Ukraine have begun to fray as their new normal sets in. The hope and resilience that characterized the beginning of the Ukraine invasion by Russia is now filled with anger.
“No, I am not ok. I am angrier than ever before,” Anastasiia noted. “Yesterday, my husband joined the Ukrainian army to teach [the] military the navigational skills in unfamiliar areas. He left home for the next three months. I am the angry mother of three, who needs to bring hope to this land but doesn’t know how.”
Yet life for Anastasiia and other Ukrainians goes on. Anastasiia is a teacher, so she teaches. “Today, I plan to have a lecture in my university, “Where to get the strength to stand and to love?”, but I do not have the answer. This is Yo-Yo Ma, and he is performing the anthem of Ukraine; maybe he knows the answer.”
Ukrainians Wait for Relief
As more cities are bombed, pleas for a no-fly zone intensify within Ukraine. They look to the world, hoping to see signs of relief.
As the Ukrainians wait for help, more and more of their children are killed. More citizens lose their homes, their livelihoods and their lives. They feel slighted, despondent and alone in fighting the Russian aggressor. “Words of support lose their meaning while russian terrorists every minute [take] someone’s life away. Day 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 – nothing changes,” Anastasiia commented.
The Vulnerability of a ‘Normal’ Life and How to Provide Aid to Ukraine and Others
After reading Anastasiia’s journal, I now fully realize how vulnerable “normal” really is. When COVID-19 invaded our homes a few years ago, we got to see the vulnerability of a normal life first-hand, but not everyone internalized that lesson.
Now we see the vulnerability of a normal life in the daily lives of our brave Ukrainian friends; they stand firm against an aggressor who seeks to steal their normal with brute force. We have watched in detachment as the normal lives of others are stolen in Yemen, Ethiopia, Syria and the West Bank.
We see it inside our own borders when new laws are enacted that demonize an opponent with different views. By not taking a stand against the atrocities, we are complicit. But there is hope as long as we pay attention.
Even from the comfort of our homes, we can do something. For example, we can sustain a Ukrainian family by renting a vacation home that we will never visit through Airbnb. That money will go directly to Ukrainian hosts.
In this country, we can open our own homes to those in need. For a family in duress, we can contribute to Chef Andrés’s World Central Kitchen.
Similarly, we can give our time to build housing with Habitat for Humanity and donate to UNICEF to help save children in war-torn countries. We can pay attention to atrocities –everywhere, even inside our own borders – and speak out forcefully when we see injustice. We can stand with the people of the world just as we stand with Ukraine in its time of greatest need.