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Column: The Ukraine I know

A friend tells me they don't know if they'll ever go back to their home country, and that breaks my heart.

It was exactly 12 years go that I set foot in Europe for the very first time.

Who knew that Ukraine, of all the countries I could've gone for my Grade 12 spring break, would be the first place I ever visited outside of continental North America.

I went there with a group of 11 other students from my high school to learn about the culture, tour the sights, interact with young people, play sports, taste the food and immerse ourselves as one of their own.

The trip was nearly a homecoming for myself as I'm part Ukrainian on my father's side.

I had been regaled of tales that included all the borscht one could eat in a lifetime (and it's absolutely delicious), the farming traditions, the big blue summer skies and a people welcoming of all backgrounds.

If given the choice, I would have loved to go back again.

Would have.

Unfortunately, times have changed — and my heart is filled with sadness.

After Russian troops invaded on Feb. 20, I made every effort I could to reach as many of the friends I made and stayed in contact with via social media across Ukraine. 

To date, only one has messaged me back.

"Anna" was a girl I met in one of the schools my group visited in Donetsk — a city of about 920,000 people in southeast Ukraine.

She told me her husband, infant child, two pets and both sets of parents are now in Germany, where a family member has lived for many years.

Upon hearing an explosion from their Kyiv apartment window, they jumped out of bed, packed what they could, hopped in their car and high-tailed to the western border.

It took three whole days of waiting (and sleeping) in a long line-up of vehicles to cross into Poland. 

Now, "Anna" says she doesn't know if she'll ever go back to Ukraine as, sadly, this is not the first time her family had to move far away from where they called home.

Donetsk was invaded by Russian military in April 2014, where it has since been referred to as the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) — Ukrainian governments have often called it "temporary territory" run by "terrorist organizations."

The occupation forced "Anna" and her husband to decide to move to Kyiv. She tells me many of the other friends and acquaintances I met chose to stay in DPR just to live and survive.

This brought my heart to rock bottom in realizing why some of the people I tried to message were not able to respond.

Imagine fleeing your home not once, but twice.

"Anna" tells me she just wants peace... for her family, for her country and for herself.

I'd like that too.

The Ukraine I know isn't filled with hatred and uncertainty.

The Ukraine I know isn't running with soldiers firing bullets.

The Ukraine I know isn't a landscape of tanks, smoky skies and abandonment.

The Ukraine I know is welcoming, endearing and generous.

The Ukraine I know is willing to open their doors to anyone looking for a fresh start or interested in learning about their culture.

The Ukraine I know is full of hope, especially in the young people looking to make a difference in their lives — through education, career, sports, art, dance, religion or politics.

I loved my time to Ukraine. It's as beautiful as I was told. The people are proud (as clearly shown in these devastating times).

As I wait for what happens next, there's only so much I can do to help "Anna" and her family or 44 million Ukrainians that have either chosen to stay and fight or seek refuge elsewhere.

Consider this: How would you feel if you had to be displaced from your home?

This type of regime has been part of human history for centuries. Why does it need to continue?

A question with no answer at the moment, but we can all do better.

I know we can.

I wish to extend an opportunity to anyone who reads this column to consider making a contribution to the Red Cross humanitarian efforts in Ukraine. It is a trusted cause by a trusted organization. Click here for more information.