By G.C. Stoppel
The next time you see photographs of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, you may want to hold your children closer. You are separated by just three degrees from that war.
First degree: we know each other because you invite me into your home each week via this newspaper. Second: Joyce Elferdink, who taught in the western Ukraine city of Kolomyia, and I are longtime friends. Third: Joyce has been in contact with her friends there during the war and passes on their stories of fear, sacrifice and triumph.
The stories she shares are not of dramatic heroism in the midst of combat nor of individual civilians standing up to the invaders. They are quiet ones about people enduring the unimaginable, trying to get on with their lives and hoping for a better future.
As always during wartime, women and children suffer most. Many have watched their husbands or fathers don uniforms and take up weapons to push back the invaders. The women continue to take care of aging relatives, children and do their best to survive.
Many other women and children have tearfully boarded trains, hoping to get to a safer part of the country or find refuge in another nation.
After a successful academic career, Joyce was invited in 2016 to go to Ukraine as a member of the Peace Corps. Ther, she was assigned to the industrial and railroad center of Kolomyia (pop. 61,000) on the western side of the country.
She remained in the city until family circumstances forced her to return to Michigan in 2018. The following two years her hopes of returning to the country were dashed by the pandemic. This year Ukraine is off the list because of the Russian invasion. Perhaps next year will be better.
Her first assignment was for two weeks in Delatyn to better acclimate her to the country. From there, she moved to Kolomyia, where she stayed with a family for the rest of her time in school.
Joyce was struck by the warmth and compassion of the people. One day when she was on a bus, somewhat turned about and confused, a woman who heard her speaking English offered to help her find her way to her destination. Not only that, but the woman offered to show her around the town of Cherniviski and refused to accept money in return for this private sightseeing tour.
Joyce said this was typical of her interactions with Ukrainians. Friendships, she said, evolved “easily. The people are incredibly generous and sharing.”
She recalled being constantly invited by her students to their family homes to share meals as a way of saying “thank you for being our teacher.” They welcomed the opportunity to practice their English in an informal setting.
Others vied for the opportunity to accompany Joyce on weekends when she would go sightseeing through the country.
Part of her work included participating in GoCamp Ukraine for the teenage students at the school. One, Anouta, was in a wheelchair and could not participate in the summer camp activities. Joyce would go to her home for private tutoring, which led to a longstanding friendship.
Anouta is now a graduate of a Polish university but cannot go home. She is terrified about the wellbeing of her friends and family still in Ukraine. Her classmate Maria, now living with the sounds of sirens and bombs, still hopes to come for a visit to the United States later this year.
“It takes little (effort) to make friends in Ukraine,” Joyce said. Now she stays in touch via Facebook and Telegram.
Joyce has also stayed in frequent contact with teaching colleagues there. Two have become her best sources of information about the war.
Valentina continues to teach, but the work is now all online because Russians are targeting schools and other public buildings. “It is very difficult,” she said. “Many students have moved, and then there is the bombing.”
Valentina wrote further about her husband, who had retired from the army, but was now back in uniform. Their daughter was able to escape from Kyiv and, at least for the time being, in a safer location.
“We pray day and night. The situation is very alert but we do believe Ukraine will win,” Valentina said.
Irina, another of Joyce’s colleagues, wrote her that their school has been closed and she is no longer teaching. She would like to leave but cannot move her 87-year-old aunt. Nor will her husband leave the city without her.
“Of course I would like our children and grandsons to leave, but my sons should defend the Motherland,” Irina said.
In addition to the war itself is the constant uncertainty of what might happen tomorrow, today or in the next few seconds. Living on edge like that, as the Ukrainians have been forced to do for two weeks now, is exhausting.
Joyce continually asks her Ukrainian friends what she can do to help, The answer seems to always be, “Pray for Ukraine.” That is important, of course.
For those who want to do something more tangible, there carefully-vetted and reputable organizations collecting money for victims of this atrocity.
“I am concerned,” Joyce concluded, “about the disrupted education of Ukrainian students.
“American students have been harmed by the loss of their in-class instruction during the pandemic. What happens to students who must either abandon their homes or learn through the backdrop of sounds and shatterings from war? I suggest we plan some projects, either online or by participating in GoCamp Ukraine when it is possible again,” she said.
We Americans are among the most generous people on the planet. When we see someone hurting our first response is to help.
Once again, when we see people in need, we reach for our billfolds. Be careful. Scam artists will try to take advantage of you. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn the Russians are running scams as well, seeing how the West has cut off many of their funds.
Give, but clearly understand who is collecting the money and make sure your resources will be put to good use.
By G.C. Stoppel