Russia-Ukraine crisis

[OPINION] Kyiv and Kharkiv through the lens of a Filipino-Ukrainian family

Chemae Magbual-Dron
[OPINION] Kyiv and Kharkiv through the lens of a Filipino-Ukrainian family
My husband’s sisters are currently hiding in a bomb shelter in Kyiv, right at the center of the storm. But they're not leaving Ukraine.

“When is my flying fairy doll coming?,” asked the 4-year-old girl on FaceTime. Her name is Melania, my children’s paternal cousin. It was February 19 when she reminded me about the parcel that I mailed a few days ago, but the tracking number showed it would probably take two more weeks before it reaches its destination: Kyiv, Ukraine.

A week later, I saw Kyiv and Kharkiv in the news. Kharkiv? This is Ukraine’s second largest city after Kyiv. This is the same city where my husband established longtime friendships from law school, where he, as a criminal prosecutor for many years, represented hundreds of victims of crime before moving to Canada where we met. 

He always talked about Kharkiv with pride. He was going to bring me and our Filipino-Ukrainian children there after the pandemic to show us his college dormitory, take us to the restaurant that made the best cabbage rolls and perogies, and bring us to the sunflower fields. Kyiv and Kharkiv, two beautiful European cities that are now utterly devastated by the absolute barbarism of Russia’s Putin. It makes me sick to my stomach.

Eye of the storm

His sisters are currently hiding in a bomb shelter in Kyiv, right at the center of the storm. I cannot believe how quickly our lives have changed as two days before the war started, I was just talking to them through FaceTime. Solomia, one of my sisters-in-law, wanted to send us a package of Ukrainian goods and she was asking me what I wanted. Maybe organic Ukrainian honey that her husband personally farmed and harvested? Or some Ukrainian chocolates? I told her, “You don’t need to worry about me. You have to take care of yourself and be safe.”

She knew what I was talking about, but we didn’t discuss it further because while the increasing tension between Ukraine and Russia was worrying, it was something we regarded as a bluff.

The night before the war, I sent her a message that said, “If you insist, you can send the honey.” A few hours after it was sent, my husband came running downstairs to tell me, “The war has started! They are bombing Kyiv!” And oh my God, did I almost fall on my seat! The first thing I did was go to Messenger and unsend that stupid message to my dearest Solomia who was probably already running for her life. 

‘We’re still alive’

The first three days of war were filled with fear and sadness. I was very cautious in sending them messages as they might be saving battery or data, and they probably would rather reply to someone in Ukraine who is able to help them directly. We are scared to death here, checking the news every second, and trying to avoid the “send” button for the “how are you?”

I’d fail a few times and send it anyway. One time, Solomia replied to me and said, “We’re still alive.” I could not explain the feeling: it was both relieving yet immensely painful. While I felt reassured, I was also baffled by the absurdity of it all. Wasn’t  it just a few days ago when she would typically say “I’m good, just came home from the playground with my daughter”? 

I keep going to her Facebook profile for new posts, waiting for any Instagram stories she may have, or really, for any sign of life. Her most recent post is a shared content about what to do in case of a nuclear attack.

Why is this happening? Under normal circumstances, this day would be meaningless and uneventful for me. I would be nothing but a tired mom preparing dinner while telling my kids to please, please clean up your Lego. But these past few days taught me that I have always taken these luxuries for granted. My heart just breaks for Solomia who, in the other corner of the world, is struggling to find an answer to her daughter’s question: “Mama, will Russians still bomb us during the holidays?” 

LITTLE WARRIOR. Melania in Kyiv.

Our little warrior – she’s braver than most of us. She would go to the ground floor for bathroom breaks and would say nonchalantly when she hears an explosion, “They bombed us again, let’s go back down to the cellar.” Why must children be a part of war?

‘We will defend our motherland’

When Ukraine had its first round of talks with Russia at the Ukraine-Belarus border, the curfew in Kyiv was lifted for a while. It gave me a glimmer of hope as it was the green light for my sisters-in-law to leave Kyiv, and eventually leave Ukraine.

My imagination has worked hard the past few days with the help of my endless staring at the European map: they may travel to my relatives in Italy via Poland or Slovakia, or maybe go to my college dorm mate in Belgium, or maybe to my friend in the Netherlands. The Netherlands, isn’t that where The Hague is located? This feels reassuring! They’ll wait there while they prepare their documents for their flight to Canada. Maybe they can fly to the Philippines as our house in Ilocos sits empty? 

So I went ahead and asked them, “Where are you guys now? Have you left Kyiv? Are you on the way to dad’s in Ternopil?” To this they replied, “No. We’re staying and we will defend our beautiful motherland.” 

With only love for their country and devoid of any fear, my Ukrainian in-laws are still in Kyiv nine days after the war broke out. What are they still doing there, you ask? Setting up headquarters, aiding in the distribution of food and medicine, and caring for the wounded – Ukrainian and Russian soldiers alike. Make no mistake about it – they will follow the principles of decency and humanity until the very end. They do this in the middle of evil. In the middle of the stench of blood and death. 

The rumors are true

So, yes, the rumors are true: Ukrainians are resilient, inspiring, and fearless. I should know. I married into a beautiful Ukrainian family, who, to the amusement of my relatives, turned me into a Filipina who speaks Ukrainian and cooks a decent bowl of borscht. 

Having known Ukrainians for a decade, I know that they have what it takes to make sure good will triumph over evil. I will wait for it, just like Melania, who’s waiting for her flying fairy doll. It just got stuck a bit longer somewhere, but this will all be over and it’s going to fly to you soon, my love. –

The author is a graduate of the University of the Philippines who immigrated to Canada in 2010. She is an immigration consultant by day, and a karaoke queen by night.