Valya's story—Part V: The kindness of strangers
Written by: Ming Holden, Edited by: Clary Estes
Valya headed out Odessa to Kyiv (via train), and then toward Poland (via another train) and then Germany (via the car of a kind German civilian), with three other women. One of them, Valya’s friend Marina, was the only one of the four who already had someone willing to host her in Berlin. Valya, by contrast, had to jump through more bureaucratic hoops. She found both Bremen and the situation with her initial host family intolerable, but the German government refused to support her move to Berlin, where she at least knew Marina.
Marina, thankfully, activated the grapevine in Berlin. It was not official, but social. And Valya, thankfully, was able to settle into the peaceful, hippie-vibed household of a smart, fun-loving middle-aged couple named Andreas and Bilya. Andreas and Bilya were affluent enough to accommodate Valya out of the goodness of their hearts, as they’d receive no stipend.
Andreas and Bilya are not just able financially to care for Valya, they’re a riot and emotionally present people who give Valya a path to healing. They met in a nightclub in the early 90s, and speak no English. Bilya is a highly trained phlebotomist and lab technician, who has been traveling the country testing samples for COVID19. Their goodwill and emotional safety come through entirely via other channels of expression: laughter, sharing food, and speaking performatively into Google Translate. We laugh heartily when the app spews something nonsensical or even scandalous in a robotic voice.
Bilya’s mother lives in the house as well. She joins us by the small pool in the verdant backyard as we order takeout. We have pizza that’s a bit too spicy for us. Bilya’s mother, whose cheek is bandaged, has a dish with potato, melted cheese, and pickles. We klink tiny glasses and drink her homemade wine as the day dies. Valya tells me to put on the Germans’ house slippers and shows me the way to the bathroom, where I wash pizza grease off my hands. I hear chatter ring from the backyard and intermingle with companionable meows from one of the four resident cats.
Valya observes to me that being with good people makes healing possible. She couldn’t have healed with the other family in Bremen. But with Andreas and Valya, and the medicine of a mother’s house wine taken like a tincture, her spirit is returning in little glimmers to her body: a belly laugh here, a deep breath there. It’s touch and go, and it will be hard going while her son is in mortal danger. Guilt has a tendency to tinge every pleasurable feeling. There is no avoiding that.
When Valya sees me off at the train station, she smuggles me ‘refugee sandwiches’ from the big white tent in the back, and then soup and coffee, because I’m hungry and cold. Life returns to my limbs for the food so graciously shared. Valya is illuminated as well. She cheers up because I need food and she knows where to get it. Upon receiving, I cheer up too. And so the wheel turns. Giving is as important as receiving in order to be a whole, complete, and healthy human.
I ask Valya to come with me inside the station since I’ve been summarily excluded from the tent by watchful German volunteers who know just enough English to tell me to scram. So Valya and I wander into a stationary and pen store I noticed on the way in. While the goods in there are probably overpriced, I ask for her help in selecting a notebook that is both unlined and small enough to carry in my purse. I plan to use it when I meet Ukrainian refugees in Moldova, where I am to travel next. Small and blank-paged books with durable covers are not easy to find, but we discover the only one in the store.
How about a gold one for you? I ask, remembering one of the gold-starred hats she designed in Odessa that spilled forth like a slinky from atop the head of her model.
No, she says, it would be too heavy to put in my backpack, and right now, my life needs to fit into my backpack.
So I select a sheet of gold star-stickers. She has not only given me lunch, I remind her, she has also provided me with a parting gift: a plastic bag filled with shampoo, deodorant, and a postcard with kittens on it. She has to let me give her something to remember me by, I tell her. We hug as I set off to catch the U Bahn and she to visit the restroom before the long trek back to the suburbs. We hold on to each other for a while.
She messages me the next day to tell me that she is thinking about new designs for her creations. She credits me, largely erroneously, with helping her regain her confidence.
I decide, perhaps also erroneously, that I wanted her to know that she has also helped me regain confidence – the confidence to show up and be with people who are hurting and possibly provide them with some small solace. Working with Valya now reminds me that we both needed to be needed.
I am no savior. She is no saint. Issues with my own trauma had prevented me from traveling to work with refugees for a long time.
As Valya and I stood in the train station and hugged each other as we said goodbye, we were just two women clutching each other amidst the swirl of people coming and going, joyous or sorrowful, hopeful or despondent, in the midst of a beginning or an ending. We cling to each other, and for a moment it seems we find some small sense of clarity upon our swirling blue planet, which itself plummets through an unknown and dark corner of our inconceivable universe.