April 17, 2022
It wasn’t until my tenth day home from my Poland-Ukraine trip that I really had a chance to process what the experience meant and why I felt so different upon my return. I knew I was different but I wasn’t sure why or how. I could write it off, as I had been describing it to friends, as a “thimble full of PTSD,” but it was something else. My therapist asked me for the one resonating image of time in the conflict zone. There was no hesitation in my answer.
Before crossing into Ukraine we went to a town on the Poland-Ukraine border called Korzowa. The Polish government had taken a massive abandoned shopping mall called Centrum Handlu and turned it into a refugee resettlement center. We were there to retrieve a mother and her kids and get them to a safe house. When we arrived in our passenger van, I immediately recognized the building from the news reports I had watched in Portland. I saw the chef from World Central Kitchen, José Andrés, preparing meals outside the building and the trucks bringing in supplies from across Europe.
Sally, our fearless leader, reminded me not to take pictures inside, as these severely traumatized people needed compassion and not to be treated like zoo animals. That was fine because the memories of the sea of displaced humanity inside the mall will forever travel with me.
It was midday so the thousands of cots were mostly stacked up but there were still many parents and children trying to sleep in the bright industrial lights. We found our family in an arrangement of couches they had made their “room” for a few days, a mother, six girls, and a Pekingese, who peed on the floor while we waited for their shelter discharge papers. It was clear that many of the Ukrainian children were afraid of strange men because of what they witnessed from the Russian soldiers who drove them from their homes, so I did my best to be cheerful, always sharing pictures of my daughter, Cozy.
While we waited to be released, I scanned the countless people who were trying to figure out the next steps in this insane disruption. My eyes stopped on a father sitting in the middle of the floor with a few bags and his daughter, who was wearing a red coat. The look on his face was of complete loss. His country was suddenly at war, his life as he knew it had evaporated, and he had no idea what was going to happen next. He had his hand on his daughter and occasionally stroked her hair, but he kept his face from her eyes. I held my phone at my waist and took one picture. I didn’t want to forget his face. That could be Cozy and I so easily.
Reflecting on the moment with my therapist, my first feeling was of sadness. While I was there, I saw so many families turned into “refugees” overnight as the Russian rockets crashed into their homes. But the more I thought about it, I started to see him as a hero. He was Atticus Finch, making the tough choices to protect his child. The refrain across the border was “Heroyam slava!” (“Glory to the heroes!” In Ukrainian.) This father wasn’t shooting at Russians, but he was still doing something heroic.
And his daughter was wearing a red coat. The girl in the red coat from Schindler’s List had haunted me during my day at Auschwitz the following month. But unlike that girl, who would end up in a pile of corpses headed for the crematorium, this girl in a red coat would escape to safety. Because of her father.
While in Poland and Ukraine, I routinely reflected on how lucky I was. A home, a family, safety. There was a moment when we were heading west, across the Ukrainian countryside with another displaced family in the van, that I noticed the color of the sky was the same color blue as on the Ukrainian flag. I thought about how that same sky was over my daughter who was safe with her mother, over 5000 miles away. The endless pain caused by stupid anger was evident on the faces of the Ukrainian children I met. What could I do to reduce the pain from anger in my own home?
When the momentum of the global travel began to subside (my sleep schedule is still on Poland time), those images and lessons began to settle in the front of my brain. Andi and I had an honest discussion about our relationship, her relationship, and the likely direction of things. The anger that had been there just lifted. I’d seen too many families ripped apart by pointless anger. I’d seen the trauma on the faces of kids whose parents were pulled in opposite directions and unable to be fully present. Things immediately improved between us. Yesterday we took Cozy to an Easter egg hunt and Andi put her head on my shoulder as we watched our child race across the grass. And today we are going to a Thorns game as family. It feels like a spring rebirth. All it took was me seeing that Ukrainian father and his girl in the red coat.
I don’t know how the war in Ukraine will play out. The same is true with events in my life. We both have some rough months ahead. In Krakow, I started the process of getting “лава Україні” (Glory to Ukraine) tattooed on my arm and finished it in Portland. The blue of the Ukrainian flag inked into my skin will serve to remind me that the love that connects us across the planet will always win out over the anger. This Easter Sunday, that suddenly means enough. Upon returning home I learned that Oliwia Dabrowska, who played the girl in the red coat on a Krakow street in Schindler’s List is now 32-years-old and has been doing refugee work in Poland at Centrum Handlu. We probably crossed paths. She’s a hero, and, OK, maybe I’m a thimble full of hero to my daughter and to those little girls I helped get to safety. Heróyam sláva!