When Stephanie joined a list to host Ukrainian refugees, she didn’t fully realize what she was signing up for. Living in Germany, she’s closer to the war happening in Ukraine, but it took living side-by-side with women who experienced it firsthand to understand what it is to love — and lose — your country.
The first thing you need to know about war is that it is random. War happens in bedrooms and schools. War happens at grocery stores and train stations. War happens in your apartment, at your aunt’s house, in your cousin’s garden. In the middle of March, two weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, war was not happening in Putin’s living room. It was happening in mine.
In retrospect, joining a Telegram group for Berliners able to host refugees was a bold move. I didn’t think much about it at the time. I had been volunteering at the train station, greeting refugees and handing out toothpaste and sandwiches, so I saw firsthand the thousands of people who arrived each hour. They all needed somewhere to sleep, and I had a pull-out couch. Vague notions drummed into me from decades of Catholic schooling probably had something to do with it. “Acts of service” and “women with and for others” and “solidarity with the marginalized” were phrases that swam in my head much of my time helping Ukrainians find the right train.
It was during one of my volunteer shifts at the train station that I received the message: “We need a place for two women in Berlin.” An hour later, I set a time to meet two women, Nadia and Tatiana, at the train station. One was arriving via Poland and the other coming through Prague.
It was only then that the safety brain kicked in. Two strangers, in my home, for an indefinite amount of time? I have a job. I sing loudly during the day. I’m frequently out at night doing a show. I’m a foreigner here. Is this really a good idea? I texted Nadia back, “Is it possible to find another place?”
She responded in what I now know was the translation of a sentiment originally conceived in Russian: “Oh please help.”
And that was that.
When Nadia and Tatiana came home with me the next day, it was a mix between hosting someone’s friends and being in a college dorm. I’d texted a few people asking for help, so I had a small fund to buy bedding and cover groceries.
We knew nothing about one other. Nadia and I had been texting back and forth, pre-translating our messages into what we assumed was the other’s native language: German and Ukrainian. (We were both wrong.)
They were restless. They were exhausted. They couldn’t sleep. They were quiet. They cleaned everything. They kept thanking me.
I soon learned that both of these women had thriving jobs and businesses in Kyiv, and up until the war broke out, they were probably making more than me. That was a jolt to my perspective. These aren’t refugees I was welcoming into the glorious West to Save Them with my American Ways. These are established women with lives and plans and property. Nadia ran an online store and a small business. Tatiana studied in London and owned an apartment. I was foolish to have assumed they would be anything less.
We cooked. We met my friends. We spent evenings at the dinner table talking about silly things. They marched in demonstrations in front of the Russian embassy. I performed in a benefit concert for the Ukrainian army. By the third week, when we were out of food, I was flustered and busy and just handed Nadia my credit card to go grocery shopping. Without much fanfare, they were family.
Americans are conditioned to care very deeply about politics. I have always felt pride in my country not only because it’s where I come from, but because I get to determine where it goes. To be American is to feel agency about the future of the country. And when Americans don’t feel that agency, we tend to get very worked up about it. We’re loud. We give a damn.
So imagine my surprise when I find myself in a situation where my opinion isn’t just ancillary, it’s totally irrelevant. I am not Ukrainian. My reliance upon the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and BBC news – previously a source of great pride, because I’m an informed American – was suddenly a crutch. I’m sitting on my phone trying to refresh updates on NPR while Tatiana is on the phone with her family. There was an airstrike two kilometers from her mom’s house. But her mom is fine. The day goes on.
With two Ukrainian women sitting at my dinner table, suddenly any political hot-takes I had feel inappropriate. What on earth could I possibly add? What do I know that they don’t? What can I offer? My American urge to figure things out, to make sense of the world and my place in it, suddenly feels so foolish. I am well-read and well-spoken and I vote split ticket and have friends in many countries and the best I can offer is… a futon.
In fact, that is the only thing that is required of me. I can’t do everything, but I can do something. And my something made a real difference in their lives.
One night, I found Tatiana in the bathroom. She was brushing her teeth. It had been a hard news day for Ukraine.
“Hey, how are you doing?”
“Oh, I’m fine. I’m well. Thank you. It is hard. It is a lot.”
“Where do you feel it?”
She gestured to her chest. “I feel it here.” She held her stomach. “And here.” I nodded and she looked at the ground for a moment.
Then she broke down in tears, toothbrush in hand.
My absolute lack of proper training came to mind, as did the fact that this is life during wartime, and it does not offer training. This is a situation for which no one will ever be prepared. There is no reason or logic. All I could do was hold Tatiana and behold a glimpse of the scope of war, and its utter indifference.
I know what death means. I know how it feels. I have held a dead body and felt the shell of personhood, departed. I know how death lingers, how much it can take up, and how far its ripples can move. The scope of this is different. It isn’t a death, an accident, a moment of natural disaster that is followed by shock, grief, and rebuilding. It isn’t a fire or a hurricane or a terrorist attack. It is a constant, moving monster that grinds down everything it touches. And it has a will.
Being close to the war through the eyes of my guests nailed home the reality that it is indiscriminate, amoral destruction that makes no exceptions. Lives, homes, jobs, industries, restaurants, savings accounts, heirlooms, pets, gardens, roads – they evaporate because someone else willed it.
What you can handle and what you need to pack do not matter. War does not care that you have a cat, or your grandmother can’t walk fast, or you just bought your house. War does not care that you planted a garden yesterday. When war comes, it is indiscriminate and complete. And you either stay to meet it, or you leave.
The desire for a world in which Christ triumphs is still a long way away.
On Catholic Easter (one week before it’s celebrated in Ukraine), I invited Nadia and Tatiana to bring anyone they’d met in the Ukrainian community over for dinner. I ended up with six women around my table, Ukrainian and Lithuanian. A few of them were students in Berlin and had lived here for years. They taught me about egg tapping and shared a huge laugh about the tradition of planting a potato in the yard, a symbol of self-sufficiency that their families did this year as a way of defying the war.
“I am studying art,” Polly shared from the end of the table.”I always thought I wanted to work in Germany when I graduated, but now I feel like I must go home and help my country.”
“You will,” I responded. “Right now Ukraine needs soldiers. But when the war is over, what it will need more than anything is artists. You will tell the story of this war. And there are so many stories that will need to be told. You will be the storytellers that make Ukraine beautiful.”
Polina, across from me, smiled wide. “You have a Ukrainian heart. You are an honorary Ukrainian.” They all cheered.
That moment resonated with me on a gut level because I know what it means to love my country. My identity as an American is so deep within me that it constantly shapes who I am and how I move through the world. My pride runs deep. So I recognized the weight of the compliment Polina gave me. I knew what an honor it was to be counted among them in a time of war, to be claimed as one of them. It reminded me what a gift it is, to have a country worth fighting for.
The United States is in a fever pitch of division. It is not an exaggeration, it is a reality that must be acknowledged. It’s hard to reconcile the ill will and insult that has seeped into our communities, and our hunger for partisan analysis that overshadows news. And yet, I still lay claim to our nation. I still hope for it, fight for it.
But this Fourth of July, I won’t be thinking about politics. I’ll be thinking about Polly, who wants to move home to Ukraine with her art degree and create beauty. I’ll be thinking about Nadia, hustling harder than anyone to find an apartment in Berlin, whose village just took a massive bomb targeting a shopping mall. I’ll be thinking about Tatiana, who successfully found a host family outside of London through the UK’s Homes for Ukraine scheme to help her long-term.
I will spend Independence Day thinking about the Ukrainian women I know who exemplify patriotism because they are living their lives as fully as they can, creating beauty wherever they are, regardless of the pain and struggle of their homeland. The love they have for their country is not a platitude. It is a relationship that causes them daily heartbreak. But they choose to live, to grow, and to keep dreaming. I want to love my country like that.