As my readers know, 24 February 2022 changed a lot in Ukraine, and for Ukrainians. On that day the Russian Federation started a military invasion. Here we are in July, trying to make some meaning of what is happening, and share our stories and reflections.
I have known Kateryna Braga** since the time we were students in Dnipro at the Psychology and English Department of Dnipro National University. Our professional paths went different directions, but we met again when she joined the Reflective Practice Group. Our recent group meeting made it possible to hear her story, and knowing how much she likes writing, I invited her to share the story with you. The floor is yours, Katya…
**more about Kateryna at the end of the post**
I am lucky because this war smells like a pine forest to me. I have spent the last four months in the mountains, and every time I open my bedroom window, I can breathe in the fresh air with the distinct smell of pine trees.
I am lucky because my family supported me every step of the way.
I am lucky because all my friends and relatives are alive. They are scattered all over the world, some have lost everything they owned due to air raids, and some are on occupied territories as they cannot leave immobile relatives.
What matters is that they are all alive, so there is a chance to change everything for the better and find a way out of every situation they are in sooner or later.
Having heard my dear colleague Oksana S. tell us about her milestones, I thought it would be interesting to reflect on mine.
I’ve realized my milestones are not distributed evenly over these four months. Some are only days apart because, at first, all the events developed rapidly, and some are months apart.
On February 25, I had my very first lesson after the war started, although it wasn’t easy to teach. In that lesson with a group from an IT company, we talked about the war, our feelings and how unprepared we were. I told my students a story about the black dot and made connections with our situation. The war was a giant black dot, but there was so much white space around it that we stopped noticing, having heard the sound of the first explosion. However, it was vital to see the good around us to remain strong and be ready to fight all the challenges ahead. Even though it was a 9 AM lesson, all students were present that morning and said they wouldn’t miss any if I was ready to continue teaching.
Some of my corporate clients informed me that classes of English in their companies had been put on hold until something cleared out. After that lesson, I contacted all of them to say that I agreed to put only our financial relationship on hold but insisted that I would start every class as scheduled and teach whoever feels like coming regardless of the money. Having a degree in psychology, I felt I could help my students. That was a smart move, not only because eventually all companies thanked me for my work and paid for all the classes. Not even because in the second part of March they decided to renew classes of other teachers seeing that people attended mine. Thinking back, I understand that it was a smart move, not even because hopefully, I could help some of my students cope with the stress most of them had never had before but because I helped myself in the first place.
Teaching is my source of resilience.
The first lesson with a group of teenagers was like a breath of fresh air. With adult students, it was different because we talked about the war, but with teens, we played games on the topic of our previous lesson, and the children smiled and laughed all the way. They were happy, and I felt happy to see them smile. When the lesson was over, I had an incredible feeling of relief. I didn’t feel relieved that I hadn’t lost my source of income…no. I was ready to continue teaching regardless of the pay. It was a relief that for one hour my brain stopped thinking about the events of the previous days. Events developed quickly but accepting them and processing all the reality of what was happening made the time move very slowly and I felt shattered. That lesson gave me the real mental strength to move on. Moreover, that day I realized that all my classes would be a war-free zone where my students could focus on non-war-related topics and let their brains recharge.
I have to admit that from day one, I felt guilty for not helping the army the way some of my students and friends did. I did not donate my blood to hospitals, did not help to make Molotov cocktails, did not help to make camouflage nets, and did not bring food or medications to territorial defense units. I was paralyzed with fear to leave my home. During the lesson with teens or adults, I felt alive and ready to do whatever it took to help them, but after, I was a mess.
Realizing that helping those who do all the things mentioned above through my classes was my contribution was another milestone. Helping people remain sane and resilient in times of war and helping teens feel happy and forget about the war during the lesson was my way of helping my country.
When the IT companies started paying for the classes I taught in February and March, I started donating money. Every week I choose a good cause I want to help, from Zoos that lack funding or people I know who have lost everything to donating money for new drones or ammunition for the army. This is my way to feel less guilty for the fact that the war smells like a pine forest to me, and I don’t get to see with my own eyes all the hardships people in the east and south of our country are living through.
The array of feelings in the first days of the war was immense and hard to describe. Strangely, I didn’t cry. There was a lot of anger, despair and frustration. One of the things I couldn’t understand was why our friends from Russia hadn’t sent us any messages. I refused to believe they supported this war, so I decided to write them an email.
I wrote about the explosions we woke up to on the early morning of February 24. About the 6 AM phone call from my husband’s parents, who live in a village by the main highway leading from Crimea to central Ukraine. The mother screamed that the war had started and the tanks had been moving non-stop and shooting.
I wrote about my husband’s younger sister, who spent seven days in a bomb shelter in Kharkiv and all the horrors of the war she had seen. The city has been shelled since day one of this war, and there have been casualties every day.
I wrote about our relatives from Izum (a town in Kharkiv region) whose house had been destroyed by the Russian missile, and despite what Russian propaganda claimed, it wasn’t a part of the military infrastructure.
At the end of every paragraph dedicated to one story of my life or the lives of my friends or relatives, I repeatedly asked one question: “Is this your idea of the ‘Russian peace’ (‘Russkiy Mir’)?”
Nothing can justify or normalize the war!
Writing the letter turned out to be therapeutic. As soon as I finished the last sentence, I felt relief. Not the mental one I felt after the first lesson with teens, I felt relief on a physical level. Every cell of my body relaxed. All those feelings and emotions stayed on the paper and stopped being a part of me. I inhaled on Thursday morning with the sound of the first explosion and was finally able to exhale only when I put the last dot in that email and sent it.
Since then, I have written many more letters to my friends and simply Russian people, which I never sent to anybody. It was my way of channelling my fury and frustration into a kind of a diary of the war. Interestingly enough, every time I read some pieces of my writing to my parents, they asked me to add some extracts from them. That writing is not meant to be read by anybody, but it helped my family cope with all the anger that can be highly destructive when kept locked inside.
The moment when I lost hope.
On March 3, my father got a message from a woman living in Russia who was a friend of our family for 50 years. Used to be…
We couldn’t understand why she and her family had remained silent for so many days so my father sent her a message saying that there was a real war in Ukraine and asking for advice as to what he as a father had to do to protect his children. In response, she sent a quote by the chief propagandist for the Nazi Party, Joseph Goebbels saying that Ukrainian followers of Bandera were brutal beasts that must be killed as there was no place for such animals among humans.
That was the day when I realized there was no hope that the people of Russia would speak up and stand up against the decision of their government to start this war. When people you loved, who visited you every summer since the day you were born, who used to live in Ukraine, who have a sibling and graves of their parents here, blindly believe government propaganda and are so brainwashed that they support the war against their close friends and relatives, you stop seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. That was the day when I started acting.
The same day my father got that message, we finally had my husband’s sister evacuated from Kharkiv and heard her story. That was the day I made the decision for all my family to move to the western part of Ukraine, away from the epicenter of events.
At that moment, I felt super confident and ready to act and just seeing my face, my husband started packing and preparing the car for the long journey without any questions or debate. I managed to convince my father, who kept saying he wouldn’t leave his home, that he wasn’t abandoning it but he was rescuing his family. On the way to the Carpathian Mountains, I could see how strong, focused and reassured my men were. For the first time since February 24, they were in control of the situation because they were on a mission to rescue their loved ones.
What would typically take us 14 hours, this time took us 70. We had to sleep on the side of the road in the cars when the temperature outside was -15. There was no chance to reach some towns before the curfew began. Nonetheless, we felt OK. We were moving away from the evil to a better, safer place and keeping that in mind gave us strength and hope. We met incredibly kind people, offering free hot drinks and food on the side of the roads. A family in Khmelnytskyi welcomed the six of us in their home for one night for free and gave us a warm, delicious dinner and belief that with such great people in Ukraine, we will win this war.
When we finally reached the place in a remote village in the mountains, my father said that we needed to do good because there weren’t enough good things and thoughts in the reality we all found ourselves in. The next day we told the owners of the house we rented what jobs and skills each of us had and that we were ready to help the people in the village. My father, who is 70 years old, went to the head of the community and offered his help as an experienced builder. I volunteered to teach English to local teens and adults, and in a week, I had 7 hours of classes on top of my regular workload. My father started helping with repairs around the house and in the yard. Before long, a few more people in the village began asking him for help paying for his kindness with milk, jams or berries. We started doing good the way we could.
When the war started, I stopped watching or listening to anything apart from the news. All videos of my favorite English-speaking bloggers, films, and even cooking programs, which I had always adored watching, suddenly became meaningless. All those people continued living their own lives while we have lost ours.
Some day in the middle of spring, when I marched into the bedroom furious at some piece of news that I had just read, my husband stopped me and took away my phone. He said I had to stop torturing myself by constantly reading the news or listening to war analytics. This war deprived us of the lives we used to have and love but under no condition should we let it suck the life out of us and stop us from being who we are.
He literally forced me to watch the video from Kara and Nate, travel bloggers from the US, whose new video notification had just popped up on the screen of our tablet. Unwillingly, I agreed but was still thinking about the latest news.
The video was about them crossing the Mexican border and their adventures on the way. At some point in that video, Nate stopped their van at the gas station to fill the tank and zoomed onto the price he had paid for the full tank. He commented that in 2020 he would pay three times less, then he said: “If this is our small way of supporting Ukraine, I am more than happy to do it” This was when I burst into tears. I had a feeling that at that moment, Nate was looking at me saying: “Katya, we know about you and what you are living through, and we are helping the way we can.”
That was the day when some simple joys of life started coming back into my life.
**Kate and Nate are travel bloggers from the US Kateryna follows, and this is the video she is referring to (with the moment at 01’07’’) **
Accepting life the way it is.
Sometime in April, I came across a Facebook post, which resonated with me deeply, and prompted me to think about one more story I had read long ago.
The first one was about Nazi concentration camps and the fact that optimists were the first to die there. They were waiting to be rescued soon…before New Year, before Easter, before… but when this “soon” never came, they were the first to lose faith and give up. You have to be a realist to face life the way it is to last long.
The second story was a Facebook post from a man from Donetsk who moved with his family to another city in Ukraine in 2014, thinking they would come back home soon. But as you can imagine, this “soon” never came. At some point, he told his family that if they needed to buy new summer shoes, they would buy them, and if they needed to buy a frying pan, they would buy it, and if they needed to buy a new fridge, they would buy it too. Thinking that you already have it all at home and hoping you can get by here with very little, stops you from living your life. When the time to come back home comes, you can sell the newly purchased things, donate, present or take them with you.
Life is here and now. Time is too precious to waste it waiting for a better time. We spent the first five weeks waiting. Since then, we have bought a lot of things for our current home, which will come in useful to people who will come after we leave.
I realized that we had to do good not only to others but to ourselves as well.
Every Saturday, my father and I drive to the nearest town to do some shopping for the week. We spend this time talking about our past and future, things we have read, seen or heard, and sharing our insights. I have been blessed to be born into a loving family of two kind and intelligent people. My father is an amazingly kindhearted, open-minded and wise man.
On June 25, on the way to our home in the mountains, we talked about the meaning of life. My understanding of it is very simple, we all have the same purpose, which is to become happy. What each person needs for happiness varies. That’s why we think each person’s purpose is different.
One insight that we both had the moment I finished talking was that the purpose of life was not only to become happy yourself but also to make people around you happier because happy people do good things. Now we need good as never before.
Kateryna, thank you for this touching, poignant post. I have read it more than once, but every time the note about (the need for) doing good things brings tears to my eyes. I am grateful that you shared this reflection with the readers of this blog. I wonder if (and hope that) some parts of it, or the whole post, can be used for language classes teachers plan in different corners of the world, and share the stories of/from Ukrainians.
Thank you for reading, and #StandWithUkraine!
UPD in August: if you enjoyed reading the post by Kateryna, you may be interested in listening to this interview on BBC with her and her student Lisa (starts around 26.45).
I have been in ELT since 2000 as a teacher, director of studies and manager of a language school. I have been teaching in a variety of contexts such as teenagers and adults, General and Business English, exam preparation and English for IT professionals.
Since becoming self-employed seven years ago, I have dedicated a lot of my time to professional development and finding ways to adapt my teaching to the personal characteristics of my students/groups which is always inspiring and sometimes unpredictable.
I am a big believer in gratitude which is a part of reflective practice that ‘reunited’ us with Zhenya. In 2015 I started my gratitude diary where I can find at least one line about almost every day of my life since then. Writing is one of the main sources of my resilience. That diary is one of my most treasured possessions which I took with me when leaving my home.