Valya's story - Part III: A room of one's own
Written by: Ming Holden, Edited by: Clary Estes
I produce a sandwich from my backpack, one I bought at Berlin’s central train station yesterday in a cafe with big windows at the back. I’d been observing the new arrivals from Ukraine as they flowed out of the station into the big white outdoor tent that had been set up to welcome them.
“Refugee sandwich!” Valya exclaims.
She explains that she now calls them that because she lived off of them for days, maybe weeks. So had everyone else in her position with a few Euros to spend on food. As a result, she politely refuses my offer to share it now, which strikes me as eminently reasonable.
We settle into our conversation a little more. Similar to almost every interview I’ve conducted with a sensitive, intelligent, and recently traumatized person, our conversation wanders from episodic to philosophical and back again. Sometimes Valya speaks with conviction, and at other times her voice shakes and her eyes fall. I tell Valya how I had set up shop in the cafe with the big windows the day before.
I don’t tell her how, as I sat there, I’d reflected on the fact that Putin was doing to Ukraine exactly what he’d done to Syria. The only difference now was that the world had poured forth a degree of support, generosity, and general benefit of the doubt that had not been extended to those of a darker complexion.
Some of the Syrians I met in both Syria and Turkey in the summer of 2013 had actually settled in Berlin, where Valya now found herself. I wondered about the differences in how Syrians had been received in Berlin specifically when they came, but there was no telling. And anyway, no one wished a worse experience upon people like Valya, least of all the Syrians I knew. (They’d made sure to tell me.)
Valya tells me what she can stand to emotionally regarding how she got from Poland to Germany—I don’t push for more. A German civilian from Bremen, horrified at what was happening to Ukrainians, had come to the border to give refugees a ride further west. He had privately fundraised to pay for the gas money needed. He could take four people at a time because that was the maximum amount his car could fit.
That well-meaning civilian had also made the fateful call to the German government that officially designated Valya as a refugee. As a result, the city where she was officially consigned to live, if she wanted any support, was Bremen. She was placed with a family she did not choose, did not know, and who was not emotionally safe for her.
After Valya’s son came to Odessa to convince her to leave the country, Valya boarded a train to Poland with three other women, including Marina, a Russian friend of hers who’d been living in Kyiv for six years. Marina moved to Ukraine because her old-growth-forest conservation activism had led to her arrest and persecution in Russia. For the three years before Putin’s invasion, Marina had occasionally photographed Valya’s fashion shoots.
Valya often speaks of her “team” back in Odessa. Marina was on it, and so were Valya’s models. Her own creative spirit and confidence had once felt like part of the team too, but ever since February 24th, she’d felt it seep from her in a way she couldn’t control and that left her with deep wells of new shame.
Valya pulls up her Facebook profile and shows me pictures of her creations: hats that seem to uncoil down in golden spirals of sparkles, or open up like a daring rose on the head. I notice that the models she cherishes and chose as her teammates are beautiful in a natural way, with healthy curves, and not in the first blushes of youth. These models were healthy, grown women in middle-aged, wearing designs the likes of which I’d never seen before.
She herself may be middle-aged, but Valya genuinely strikes me as an exciting, promising fashion designer. She has an original eye, and there’s a refreshing buoyancy and excess to her work. Sitting in the cold wind outside the central train station of Berlin with me, it’s clear that Valya’s current circumstances are not exactly conducive to creation. So for now, her designs live only in her mind. Still, it would be a shame if she stopped now.
But hopelessness and helplessness often quickly overtake her eyes, like a summer lightning storm takes over the sky with its hungry, capricious darkness. It’s understandably hard, even impossible, for her to imagine a happy outcome to the destruction that has gripped her country, her city, her life, and her plans for that life. The moments her eyes fill with tears are the moments when she grapples with forgetting, even for a second, that her son remains in Kyiv. How could she possibly feel anything positive while he is still in Ukraine? Her inner critic becomes loud, and her tone becomes uneven.
Those demons of self-criticism have gripped her enough that she is convinced she will have to stop designing fashion and styling for the rest of her life. I remind her that I understand: the breeze is cold, her hosts speak a language unknown to her, and she’s gone from independent to dependent in the blink of an eye: but now is not forever, no matter how much it may feel that way.
And it may take longer than is fair or just, but her creative juices will flow once more. She will, someday, have that room of one’s own. She’ll have a studio space, and she’ll get back to creating.
But Valya’s not sure where that old self is – the one she cultivated so intentionally once she had raised her son, when she reclaimed her life by moving to Odessa to pursue her creative vision. She knows she’s fortunate to have ended up in Germany, which is considered to be one of the better places for a refugee to live. Yet, while the kindness and intelligence and healthy home of her new hosts give her room to recover, there is still the famous labyrinth of obtuse German bureaucracy to deal with.
Next: Part IV: Longing for home