A Ukrainian Abroad

I was born in the beautiful historic city of Lviv, Ukraine about six months after the fall of the Soviet Union and Ukraine’s independence.

Like many young people at the time, my parents began to head west for more opportunity - first to London and later to Canada. After college I moved to California and recently to New York to join Collaborative Fund.

I have always been proud and thankful for my itinerant childhood. It expanded my world view, pushed me to adapt, and allowed me to be empathetic to different world views as I have seen first hand how different socialization, upbringings, and locations mold people.

But in a way I have always felt like an observer. I have never felt like any one place was truly home nor did I tie my identity to any one nationality or city.

That began to shift three weeks ago.

Having your country and identity be under siege, by both ammunition and propaganda, is an out-of-body experience – one that I’m still processing.

On one hand I am so proud of the resiliency of the Ukrainian people and grateful that the world was coming to Ukraine’s side.

But, after about the sixth day of the war, something new settled in – a feeling of helplessness, hopelessness, and guilt.

How does this end? How does it end without mass casualties and damage to this beautiful country? I understand the NATO and US perspective and their hesitancy to get involved. But how does it end when what Putin wants is not his to take?

The first few days I avoided the news so I wasn’t distracted from work. Then guilt overcame me that I was in the privileged position to be able to turn it off while my family and country was dealing with the reality. It felt silly going on with my day-to-day activities of getting dinners, having coffee chats, and even answering emails as this was happening.

As you can see from my byline, my name does not sound American. It usually leads to a joke about “Hola, Ola” and a question of “where is your name from” or “what is your background” as a form of pleasant small talk.

Usually my response is quick and easy. Now when I answer this question I can see a tone shift from the inquirer. Pity? Are they sorry they asked? While the response is overwhelmingly supportive, this simple exchange is a daily reminder that my homeland, the place I was born, the country where most of my family lives is under siege and at war.

I have considered myself a pacifist for over 15 years. After some intensive listening to The Beatles in my teens and interest in Cold War politics, I was led down the hippie vegetarian pacifism path. I am still a strong believer in peace and non-violence, but this becomes a grey area when a senseless attack is being carried out. Where hospitals and civilians are the target. Where your culture and identity is under attack by a group of power-hungry people who do not value life the same way you and I do.

One thing this attack has done is strengthen the identity and pride of the Ukrainian people – at home and the diaspora abroad. Myself included.

The beauty of the land and cities, the richness of the culture, the amazing food, the artistic pursuits, the technical and engineering caliber of the people … it cannot be broken.

Ukraine is a land with a tumultuous past of being ruled by others, with identity being suffocated. But it continued quietly – through art, through whispers, and the privacy of peoples homes.

The story of my late grandmother hiding a mini bible in her boot when she as sent to a labor camp in Siberia stands out. The bible sits on my mother’s nightstand in Toronto today. Many have tried to suppress the Ukranian identity and have not succeeded - and they will not succeed this time. The culture is holding strong across the world - in the proud communities in London, Toronto, Calgary, Chicago, New York, New Jersey (to name a few) - away from Putin’s reach.

Here’s to brighter days and peace.

Слава Україні

-Оля Кулинич

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