I Work With Refugees. After Fleeing Irpin, I’m Now Displaced Myself.
Facts matter: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter. Support our nonprofit reporting. Subscribe to our print magazine.In 2018, my partner and I—she is Ukrainian, I am American—put together a Google spreadsheet called “Home – Kyiv.” I was due to finish a mission with a humanitarian organization in western Africa and planned to return to Ukraine, where I had worked from 2014 to 2016, and where my partner lives. She had left her home in Donetsk in 2017 with her daughter and mother and was ready to build a life in a new place. After several trips to scout out neighborhoods in Kyiv and its suburbs during my leave visits, we landed on what felt like a perfect option: Irpin, a town of 60,000, 20 minutes from the Kyiv metro, bustling with young families and energy.
Good fortune seemed to be with us as the second house we visited ticked all our boxes: big yard, surrounded by pine trees, close to a park and grocery stores, a short walk to the woods, and space for our family to grow. Two years later, we had finished remodeling, put in raised beds to grow vegetables, bought bicycles, found a dog-walking group, and converted a spare bedroom into a nursery. In the summer of 2021, we welcomed a baby girl.
The life we built in Irpin is now far away.
On February 14, we packed the roof box of our car and made a nine-hour drive from Irpin to western Ukraine, heeding increasingly urgent warnings from the US government of an imminent attack. For 10 days, we watched and waited, hoping for the best and coping with the feeling of shame that we weren’t home, standing in solidarity with our neighbors and friends in the face of Russian threats. On February 24, I awoke in the dark, flicked on my phone, and was met with a cascade of updates—Russian Federation missiles had struck locations across Ukraine. Our discussion about what to do was brief. My wife, my mother-in-law, and my stepdaughter had already lived through war once. We re-packed the car and made plans to head to the Romanian border the following day. That evening I watched our infant daughter playing with her toys on a colorful baby mat we had squeezed into the roof box and thought about what her life would look like and what the word “refugee” would come to mean to her.
The path of those forced to flee their homes by conflict or disaster is one I had come to know through my work. In 2014, I began managing humanitarian projects in eastern Ukraine for those displaced by the Russian annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Donbas region. My work later took me to Greece, northeast Nigeria, Mali, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and to support responses in Nepal, Indonesia, Timor Leste, and Tonga. Humanitarian work at its best is grounded in nuanced assessments of material and nonmaterial needs, and a sincere effort to understand the plight of those we serve, but it is also a professionalized endeavor of project proposals, budgets, databases to be managed, coordination meetings, and compliance issues. All of this can reduce the people we serve to “beneficiaries”—objects counted in spreadsheets and reports based on their demographics. Like most of my colleagues, I have always strived to be the most empathetic and perceptive listener possible when interacting with people who have lived through conflict. But my understanding had always been limited by my own capacity to listen and imagine.
The aftermath of Russian military strikes in Irpin, Ukraine
Narciso Contreras/Anadolu Agency/GettyNow the reality of displacement is mine as well, and I understand that I had not fully appreciated the dominant features of the experience: the sheer weight of the stress and emotion that displacement brings, the fear for one’s own safety and the safety of family members and friends, the anguish and worry for those left behind, the anxiety about what lies ahead.
On February 28, after three days and nights in our car, creeping the final 10 kilometers across the Ukraine–Romania border that was jammed with cars and families on foot carrying children and towing suitcases, we arrived at the Romanian border control point near the town of Siret and handed our passports to a border police officer. As we drove through the checkpoint and into the early morning darkness, past Romanian and European Union flags and northern Romania’s distinctive Orthodox churches, the stress of the long wait to cross the border began to recede, and a new wave of questions began to wash in.
Where will we be living in a month? In three months? Will landlords accept us with our two dogs?
Where will our 11-year-old finish fifth grade? Can our family provide enough support for her to weather the emotional stress of leaving her home behind for the second time in five years?
How will we organize health care for our 9-month-old?
What kind of life can we provide for my mother-in-law?
How will we manage medications for family members who need them?
What legal documentation will we need to stay in Romania?
In answering these questions, we are very fortunate. My wife and I have both worked remotely since the beginning of the pandemic, and our employers have pledged to support us here. We have savings to fall back on and international health insurance. The Romanian I learned as a Peace Corps volunteer in neighboring Moldova 15 years ago is enough for us to get through day-to-day challenges. And we are here together. As a US citizen, I was permitted to leave the country, while the government of Ukraine moved in late February to forbid men ages 18 to 60 from leaving the country. I know the vast majority of refugees are confronting the challenges of life following displacement with far fewer resources, and we have already begun to see cases of refugees returning home to Ukraine. Facing prolonged displacement in a country where they don’t speak the language and have few assurances of being able to meet basic needs, some have decided, understandably, that they can cope with the fear of a missile attack and nightly air raid sirens at home.
A man films destroyed vehicles and Russian tanks in Irpin
Laurel Chor/SOPA Images/ZumaIn answering these questions, there is also a sense of guilt. The act of buying new clothes to replace those left behind in Irpin or looking for online Romanian language courses feels like a tacit micro-betrayal of our faith in the Ukrainian army and the civilians resisting the Russian invasion and occupation. A recent poll by an independent Ukrainian research group showed that more than 90 percent of Ukrainians believe their country will triumph. My family and every refugee I have spoken to here in Romania have said the same: “We want to go home.” Still, reality compels us all to take concrete steps forward.
In the rush to collect the data that drives the design of humanitarian projects, I have tried ensure that we do not lose sight of the importance of solidarity and human dignity that is at the foundation of our work. And now, with each trip I make to shelters in Romania to meet with new groups of arrivals, I am reminded of how important mental health support is—psychological first aid at first, appropriate mental health services later—in a world where humanitarian assistance mostly means meeting material needs. I’ve realized that in many cases the greatest help I can provide is just to be present and listen. In the faces of the people I meet, I see the same kind of emotional exhaustion I felt as we arrived in Romania.
I also see the same heartbreak, as our collective experience plays out against the backdrop of what is happening at home. And my family’s particular prism is Irpin.
In the early days of the invasion, Irpin became a strategic point on the frontline to the west of Kyiv, and the site of some of the enduring images and stories of the first month of the war. Hundreds of people huddled beneath a destroyed bridge waiting evacuation. A mother, her children, and a volunteer lying next to their suitcases, murdered by Russian artillery as they attempted to flee Irpin on the main road leading east to Kyiv. And now, with the apparent retreat of Russian Federation forces, we are living the horror of civilians massacred in Irpin and the neighboring town of Bucha.
In this bizarre reality, we follow the fate of our city via live alerts from international media, tweets from Ukrainian news outlets, Telegram channels, and a chat with members of our dog-walking group. Each ping of an update or message arriving is cause to hold our breath and mentally prepare for what the news may be.
Burned-out vehicles, homes and apartment blocks destroyed, evacuation buses turned around by Russian troops, reports of widespread looting, mining of roads and alleys, unexploded shells in the parks and the woods where we met with friends to walk our dogs, corpses in the parks that had drawn my family and so many others to Irpin. We recently learned from the Irpin mayor that Russian forces had murdered women and girls and then run over their bodies with tanks on our street.
As we grieved for Irpin and our neighbors in Bucha, another message ping came—drone footage of our neighborhood, taken in early April. Watching the video over and over, we could identify our neighbor’s house, still standing, and the edge of our roof, just visible through the trees. The house across the alley is gone. It will be days, perhaps weeks, before we know the condition of our home, but the glimpse of our roof brought a brief surge of relief, a feeling so incongruous with the dead feeling inside that this war and its atrocities has created in all of us.
As we tell one another here in conversations and in chats with friends, vidbuduyemo—we will build back. But we all understand the road to rebuilding Ukraine will be long—to recovery, even longer. And there will be no return to the lives we lived before.