It’s the first week of May. Cultures worldwide are celebrating holidays honoring the onset of spring and the lengthening of light across the land. Pastoral Germany is no exception. Springtime celebrations sit in stark contrast to the Valya’s experience fleeing west. She begins to tell me of the harrowing several days spent in one of Kyiv’s subways in late February. There in the fetid darkness, Valya scratched her own cheeks raw, huddled without water or a bathroom. Great booms sounded above.
It was not until someone expressed concern about the developing wound on Valya’s cheek that she even realized she had one. Valya’s a stylist, designer, and aesthetician. It’s a big deal for her to incur a wound on her own face, let alone one so serious that the people around her would comment on it. It’s what led her to Germany instead of fleeing only to Poland. Germany had the medical care she needed so that her wound would not become infected or lead to permanent scarring.
It’s been nine weeks since then. Her face strikes me as one with perhaps some stress-borne shadows and wrinkles but no visible evidence of the self-inflicted wound that spoke to the torture she felt inside when the first bombs shook her windows in Odessa and drove her underground.
We walk a pleasant fifteen minutes from Valya’s train stop to her host family’s house. A line of shops gives way to open fields. Berlinesque bike paths carve smooth lines around arching trees illuminated by the sun shining through their young leaves. It feels like we’re walking down a lovers’ lane. We’re a strange pair for a German village: Valya, a slim, still-youthful Ukrainian woman in her fifties or sixties; and me, an American-born, half-German Jew by birth in her late thirties – neither of us speaking a lick of German.
We talk earnestly as the buzz of the train station fades into the hum of spring quiet. Valya mentions that she was first placed in a suburb of the German city of Bremen. She doesn’t exactly describe in words how that place and that family affected her. Rather, she uses a kind of universal sign language by waving her arms to reflect how words escape her. Suffice it to say, there was something wrong with the place. The groceries were outlandishly expensive, and the family was so hard for her to be around that she wondered if they were taking in a refugee just for the monthly government stipend.
“It sounds like having a toxic workplace,” I comment. By now I’m walking behind her, on a narrow part of concrete before our path widens again. “Like a bad boss, or a bad boyfriend. Where every day, you’re more and more tired and hopeless. If it’s where you have to be every day, it can really drain you.”
She lights up at being heard. That’s exactly what she’s talking about, she says in halting English. That’s the feeling.
Valya points out a hospital as we turn right and head up a hill. I’m sweating lightly and panting more than her in spite of being some twenty years her junior. Valya is wiry, with the body of a woman who takes care of herself. She is beautiful, even with signs of stress so evident in the shadows beneath her eyes. When she speaks, she strikes me as someone both emotional and strong. The sparks of expressiveness that animate her as she relates her odyssey makes me feel certain she’ll find her way back to herself.
But when I say as much, Valya shakes her head; she, by contrast, feels an endless pull back towards the frozen ground of hopelessness. The moments of presence that might have given her hope are nullified by the moments of disconnect that drain her.
When we first arrive at her new hosts’s house, I see Valya nervously disappear into the kitchen, and her hosts appear out of it. I begin to understand that she really doesn’t know German and they really don’t know Russian, English, or Ukrainian. I myself misunderstand who is offering what, and Valya appears with a cup of instant coffee for me just as one of her hosts, Andreas, comes out with a cappuccino. We laugh about it and I am reassured. Ultimately, Valya seems to have landed with good people.
For someone in her position, living in a safe and supportive host situation determines not only her short-term daily contentment, but also her chances at survival.
I am reminded of stories about the evacuation of English children to the countryside during the blitz. (The Queen's charming skit with Paddington Bear brought those times to mind). Some children were placed with caring families and thrived, other host families merely tolerated their "guests" and provided depressing and squalid conditions. I hope Valya will do well, but most of all, that this nightmare will end for Ukrainians and they can soon begin rebuilding. Perhaps Valya's hosts will show her some of the photos of the devastation in Germany after WWII, and how the beauty was restored. That might give her hope.