As we started to bring in supplies, I met an 80-year-old woman standing in her garden tending to the flowers. Despite the raging battle that swept through the neighborhood, her plants stood tall – beautiful and untouched. They reached all the way to her knees.
KIEV, Ukraine — When I close my eyes, I see Oleksander, a young boy I met while serving in Ukraine through Doctors Without Borders. Oleksander lost everything in the war, but I watched as he made his way through life, helping every person he encountered. With his face forever etched in my memory, his resilience both warmed and broke my heart. The people and events I continue to encounter in Ukraine have permanently changed me. On sleepless nights, I stare up at the sky wishing for the war to end once and for all.
In the middle of winter last year, the Ukrainian front line moved south and our team from Doctors Without Borders gained access to a new area. Only 20 people remained there. After a long period of isolation, we found them low on food and medicine. As we started to bring in supplies, I met an 80-year-old woman standing in her garden tending to the flowers. Despite the raging battle that swept through the neighborhood, her plants stood tall – beautiful and untouched. They reached all the way to her knees.
The rest of the neighborhood fared far less favorably. Rubble from destroyed structures surrounded her house. It seemed surreal – like a scene from a movie. Devastation cast its shadow everywhere, and her magnificent garden sprung up in its midst like an oasis. We walked toward her, breathing it all in and a chill ran up my spine. The moment we made eye contact, she greeted us cheerfully and began to share her story.
“When the rest of the people come back,” she said, “I want them to see my beautiful garden.” We stood there speechless. Despite the atrocities of war raging around her, this woman tended to her plants to make others happy. A glimmer of hope flashed in her eyes.
Throughout my journey in Ukraine, I learned so much about myself and humanity. Some images haunt me relentlessly, but the strength of the Ukrainian people inspires me to continue. We certainly face heartache. Just a couple days ago, my eyes rested upon the remains of a human being crushed under the shrapnel of a missile. I shudder at the thought of it. Yet, despite the heartache and the physical, mental, and emotional toll, nothing compares to the feeling of saving someone’s life.
The work I do requires strong negotiation skills in order to gain access. Every time I face a gun pointed at my head or hear the sounds of bombs whizzing through the air, a rush of adrenaline consumes me. It takes enormous effort to remain focused and calm while warding of the fear and stress of war. To let it consume you can cost you your life.
The hardest part of this work is managing your emotions, and we face realistic fears. A missile often measures between 15 and 20 meters. When it explodes in the air, it combusts into a giant light that cuts straight through the sky. A few days ago, from my home in Kiev, I heard the raging thunder of two missiles exploding. The sound of something so powerful and destructive horrifies me and the terror becomes overwhelming. I feel grateful that Doctors Without Borders offers us significant psychological support – for both the victims and the staff. Everyone needs that help.
When people arrive at the shelter, they suffer from severe insomnia and show signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. These are people who hid in basements for months, left everything behind, and witnessed horrific scenes. They have no homes, money, or family. My goal becomes to keep them alive and to help them return to health.
I used to feel powerless when I saw atrocities and injustices in the world and I always wanted to do more – to be amongst the volunteers saving lives. Now, when I see smile on a child’s face or feel the grateful embrace of a person we pulled from the rubble, a warmth fills my heart. I hope this war ends soon but, in the meantime, there is nowhere on Earth I’d rather be, helping those in need. One day, we will rebuild Ukraine and witness this nation heal.
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