You may or may not know that I was born in Kyiv (Kiev), Ukraine to a Ukrainian mother and a Sierra Leonean father. My dad was studying in the former Soviet Union and that is how my parents met. My dad first studied the Russian language in what was then Leningrad, renamed back to Saint Petersburg after the fall of the Soviet Union. Coming from warm West Africa the cold winter and the short three hours of daylight in December were a bit of a shock to my dad. He requested to be transferred somewhere warmer, somewhere more south. After spending a year learning Russian in Leningrad his request was granted and he was moved to Kyiv, about 10 degrees latitude south. For reference of how far south this is: Kyiv is north of the 50th parallel, which is north of the northernmost part of Minnesota, which is the northernmost part of the continental United States.
I was born in Kyiv, in what was then the Soviet Union. Kyiv is one of the oldest cities in Europe emerging as a trading post as early as the 5th century. The city celebrated its 1,500th anniversary in 1982 when I was in kindergarten there. My first language was Russian. Russian was spoken everywhere in Ukraine, especially in the big cities. It was, and still is the language of commerce in all of the former Soviet Union. I attended first grade in a Ukrainian school in Kyiv where the language of instruction was Ukrainian and our foreign languages were Russian and English or German. But on the playground all of us kids spoke Russian. In the stores everyone spoke Russian. When I visited my grandma in the village I got to speak Ukrainian but that was in the west of the country between Kiyv and Lviv. In hospitals, at the bazaars, in the subways and on the streets everyone spoke Russian. It was convenient. That was the language that many people knew. It was pervasive and ubiquitous. I proclaimed to my parents that I was Russian, while my mom was Ukrainian, and my dad was Sierra Leonean. They smiled. I was seven. I did not see the difference. Ukrainians and Russians were the same people to me. Russia started in Kiyv with Kievan Rus’. Russia, Belarus and Ukraine came from this city. These people share a culture and so much more.
My dad finished his studies and in 1987 we left for Sierra Leone. We visited my grandma in Ukraine often, until she passed. I have very fond memories. My mom lives in the US now, but visits Ukraine from time to time and keeps up with her cousins. I still get a kick out of surprising people that I speak Russian or Ukrainian. Nobody ever imagines it by just looking at me. We have Ukrainian and Russian friends.
Then last week happened.
It has been extremely painful for me and all of my family to watch. It is a re-lived experience for us. It is a deja vu of the war in Sierra Leone. We actually have seen this movie before. We were in it the first time. That experience can be the subject of a book and is partly responsible for me ending up in the United States. What I know is that when the fighting starts you are alone. The politicians and world powers say all the right things. They have meetings in fancy places and make great speeches. But nobody is coming to rescue you. In a conflict such as this one, it is all up to you, your wits, your survival instincts, and hopefully some good luck or faith.
It is especially painful as Ukrainians and Russians are, indeed, on many levels, the same people. They listen to the same music, watch the same movies, read the same books, for the longest time they cheered for the same national team. Many speak the same language. There are political games being played by Russia, by the West; I am not here to point fingers. Putin may have had some grievances but he has grossly overstepped. There is no more Soviet Union. That country is long gone. Regular people, families, children, pay for the decisions of a few people in power. This is horrible. The fighting needs to stop!
I am incredibly grateful to have the life I have. I am grateful for the little things that we often take for granted. I have not always had those little things. I am grateful for living in a safe place, for having a warm house during this cold winter, for having food for my four daughters, for having a loving and supporting wife, with whom we are building a future for our family. I am grateful for the stability which the United States offers. Twice now I have lived in countries where people thought things were stable and safe only for their lives to be uprooted and turned on their head with little notice. Some were lucky to escape with nothing but their lives, their life’s work taken, destroyed. Others were less fortunate. I am grateful for my parents for making sure I got as great an education as possible, for teaching me to think, and make decisions. I am grateful for my kids. Grateful to have their unconditional love. I am grateful that my children are able to go to school. Grateful that they have a school, with teachers and classrooms, where they actually learn things. There are kids sitting in stone cold basements in Ukraine tonight who don’t know whether their schools will survive the shelling, who don’t know if the building in the basement of which they are sitting will survive the shelling, who don’t know if they will see their parents, friends and loved ones again.
War is hard. It is unforgiving. It brings out the worst in people. It is indiscriminate. It needs to stop. As of this writing all of the people that we know in Ukraine are still safe. My mom had lost contact with one of her friends for a few days but then earlier today she was able to reach her on the phone. Her friend was trying to get out of Kyiv by car, a dangerous way to travel, heading to the west of the country.
If you are able to, please support any of the following efforts which are helping people in Ukraine who are affected by this war.
Hug your loved ones. Hug your family. Hold them tight and cherish them. Don’t take things for granted. Be grateful for the life you have.