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To Leave or to Stay?

On Wednesday, March 23rd, the Russians bombed Kyiv yet again. I was worried about Alina, whom I’d just spoken to on Tuesday, and who had chosen to bravely stay behind in Kyiv, along with her family, her students, her president, her people. I decided to call and check in.

Alina and her family were safe, for the moment. However, she reported that people living on the higher levels of tall buildings were evacuating. She also told me that the sky in Kyiv is black with smoke, even in the middle of the afternoon.

“The Russians are torching buildings around Kyiv and creating this smoke. A day ago, Kyiv had the third highest pollution level in the world. Outside our windows the sky is black.”

In war, we focus on the safety of people; however, Alina’s observations about the pollution caused by Russian bombings and fires draws my attention to another casualty of war – the environment.

Alina tells me that since we’d spoken earlier this week, she has been interviewed by an employer in western Europe. If the second interview is successful, she may receive an offer that would enable her to leave Ukraine together with her mother. The men in the family, of course, would remain behind to fight.

“We would not be dependent on anyone, and we would not end up in a refugee shelter,” Alina says, pointing out the positive aspects of accepting this position, should she be made an offer.

Alina is proud. As a professional and as a professor, she feels that she could not bear to become a refugee, humble and dependent on the good will of strangers in a foreign country. Not after having worked her entire life in high-level professional positions.

“It kills you to become a refugee,” Alina confides. “If you are a professor and you lose your profession, how do you live with just working any job to get by? I don’t think I’d be very good at farming or working as a laborer. I wouldn’t want to find myself in one of those large refugee shelters.”

The reality of what it means to become a refugee is an aspect of the war on Ukraine that many have not fully considered when contemplating the fate of Ukraine’s over three million refugees who have fled abroad. Most may consider that anyone is lucky to simply get out of Ukraine alive.

But I understand Alina’s viewpoint. As a university professor myself, I understand how devastating it would be to lose your dignity, your profession, your role in society. Teaching in the university is not just a job, it is a calling.

As the daughter of a father who was a World War II refugee, and as the great granddaughter of great grandparents who became refugees in their middle age, after having studied, acquired degrees, and dedicated their professional lives to interwar independent Lithuania, I understand. I’ve been reading my great grandfather’s journal of loss, written before his death, but only a few years after losing everything as a war refugee. In 1941, my great grandfather, Professor Jurgis Čiurlys, was targeted to be liquidated by Russia during the Soviet occupation of Lithuania because he was an engineer, and because he had served in independent Lithuania’s Ministry of Transportation, helping to create the Lithuanian railroad. He was also a target because he had worked hard and had purchased land.

My great-grandmother, Elena Bilminūtė Čiurlienė, studied at the conservatory in Saint Petersburg in the early twentieth century and was a concert pianist. She too was an “enemy of the state” to Soviet Russians for her musical accomplishments. My grandfather, Ambassador Anicetas Simutis, already was in New York during and after World War II, serving Lithuania’s prewar independent government as a diplomat. He secured a position for my great-grandfather at Indiana University as a Professor of Engineering. This teaching position allowed my great-grandparents and great aunt entry to the United States after World War II, where they began their humble lives as refugees, albeit intellectual refugees.

Intellectuals forced to flee their country in times of war face challenges that I think many may find difficult to understand when considering the plight of the refugee in general.

Alina tells me she also received an offer to teach university courses in Economics, but without a salary, at another university abroad. She would, however, earn her accommodation in the university dorm in exchange for her teaching.

The university where she teaches in Kyiv can only manage to pay their faculty two thirds of their salary, but she will continue teaching her students online, even if she were to go abroad.

“As it is, because of the war, we can only work with our students online,” Alina says and sighs, weighing all the implication of “should I stay or should I go.”

In times of war, it seems almost like sacrilege to turn down any offer when your city is being bombed and your first priority ought to be your own survival. Beggars can’t be choosers, the adage goes. However, who has turned whom into a beggar? This is one of the cruel catastrophes the enemy inflicts on its victims, to shred them of their dignity, of their life’s work, of all that they have spent their life working for, to turn dignified people into beggars.

That is the plight of the refugee.

The refugee must be eternally grateful for whatever is given to her.

The refugee has no voice because she ought to consider herself lucky just to be alive.

Russia has turned over three million people out of their homes.

UNICEF reports that 1.8 million Ukrainian children have been forced out of their homes and are now living abroad as refugees. Then 2.5 million Ukrainian children have been rendered internal refugees. In total, Russia’s war of genocide against Ukraine has created 4.3 million Ukrainian child refugees.

“When this war is over, you will come back,” I say.

“Yes, but it is a very difficult decision to make, whether to leave or to stay. I have been committed to staying all this time, but my family wants my mother and I to be safe, and they feel that the constant bombings are too much for anyone to live with. You just never know when a rocket will fall on you. You hear the sound of missiles, and you gaze at your ceiling and wonder if this time you will be hit. But I have gotten used to it. Humans can get used to anything.”

Yes, humans can get used to anything, even watching daily news reports on atrocities committed by Russia against Ukrainian civilians while allowing them to continue.

“How ironic,” Alina muses, “we just finished a major renovation of our apartment and we sunk all our savings into it. I’m comfortable living in my renovated space, but now I must leave it behind.”

Alina admits that she is afraid. Despite her courage, she still has moments when she is simply scared of what the future will bring.

“We don’t know when the Russian Zombies will be finished with Ukraine. I knew all my life that Russians hate the people of all the nations they had occupied in the Soviet Union. They hate Ukrainians, and they hate Lithuanians like you too. They say this openly on the Internet. They write that Ukraine never existed and that all Ukrainians deserve to die. Right now, in Kyiv, which is a relatively safe city during this war, 264 people have been killed, and ten of them are children. There have not been any battles fought in Kyiv, and yet these many people died from bombings and other attacks committed by Russia.”

It is difficult for me too, although I am not living through this war, but only writing down women’s testimonies. It is difficult to talk about all the death, destruction, the injustice of it all.

I change the subject and tell Alina I’ve been watching Zelenskyy’s series “Servant of the People” on Netflix, and I love it.

“But do you understand the Russian?” Alina asks.

We have been speaking in English all this time. I reluctantly admit that I do understand Russian, and can even speak some Russian, but my horror of what Russia has done to Ukraine, to Chechnya, to Syria, to Kazakhstan over the last few decades has rendered me incapable of speaking Russian anymore. Russian words choke in my throat before I can utter them out loud. I remember my father telling me that he felt this way about the Russian language. He was upset that I was “wasting my time” in college taking Russian language courses. I argued back that Russian was also the language of great literature and that there were many wonderful Russian intellectuals in the world. Only now, I’ve reached the same place as my father. I cannot utter a word in Russian. I can only listen, but I do not wish to engage.

Alina tells me that “Servant of the People” was so popular in Ukraine that even her young nephew learned the theme song by heart and then begged his parents to vote for Zelenskyy in the presidential election.

“It’s really an interesting case in terms of Marketing,” Alina comments. “In a way, Zelenskyy used the five years the show ran to build his popularity and his brand and to lay the groundwork for his presidential campaign. He was a household name.”

“Watching the show, and the character’s impassioned speeches, I can easily see how people could blur fiction with reality and want Zelenskyy to be their president,” I admit.

We discuss how Zelenskyy has tailored every one of his speeches to foreign parliaments and government to equate Russia’s war against Ukraine with historical moments in each country’s history.

“Yesterday he spoke with Japan, and he tailored his talk to focus on nuclear disasters, knowing how sensitive the Japanese are about that topic,” Alina reflected.

I feel as though we could talk more, but the sun is setting in Ukraine, and the nightly Russian bombings of civilian targets is about to resume again, as they have for the past thirty days this unjust war has endured. Alina and her family need to prepare for the night. They must survive one more night of hell.

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