She was sitting across from me on the bus in Odessa when we struck up a conversation. Her daughter, maybe 2 years old, was playing with her cell phone. Dressed casually in jeans and a shirt, she told me she had finished university and was entering law school. Her husband was a linguist. They lived in Kiev, but had come to the coastal town of Odessa for vacation.
She asked what I do. This was midway through my four years of living in Odessa. I told her about my organization, This Child Here, and how we work with orphanages and shelters to help Ukrainian children. Aside from spending on what you would expect on the kids — clothes, food and medicine — I told her that I’ve paid for horse therapy, sailing lessons, martial arts, English and math lessons, dance classes and more. She listened patiently.
Then she said, «I am an orphan.»
This shocked me. «Where did you grow up?»
«In an orphanage in a small town in west Ukraine,» she said. «I had two sisters, there was no father around; mom couldn’t take care of us. My sisters and I were separated.»
I told her, «I have never met an orphan who went to university and started law school. Would you mind telling me how you did this?»
Above the noise of the bus, she said, «You can’t believe those people who tell you, ‘Your mother is an alcoholic, your father doesn’t want you. You will never be anybody.’ You have to believe in yourself.»
A common reason children end up on their own, in an orphanage, or on the streets, is that they were abused. Ukraine is a country that has been abused. The Revolution of 1917, WWII, Stalin’s starvation of millions, the collapse of the USSR, have all left their marks on Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin is continuing the abuse now by sending troops, tanks and soldiers to Ukraine.
First Putin took Crimea. Now, pro-Russian protesters are calling for regional independence in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk. This comes on top of the news that a Ukrainian naval officer was shot dead by a Russian soldier in Crimea. No one knows what will happen next.
Putin is working from the view that Russia is the parent and Ukraine is a child. But Ukraine isn’t interested in hearing that narrative any more. The abuse that Ukraine has suffered in history is bad enough. But the attitude that says «We own you» is even worse.
This conflict is not about Russians versus Ukrainians. Many people in Ukraine speak Russian. They were Russian, now they are Ukrainian. Language isn’t the issue. Some Russians have been living in Crimea for generations. They live in harmony with their Ukrainian neighbors. Crimea is their home.
There are also Russians who moved to Ukraine for personal, family or business reasons. Ukraine is a developing country, with more freedom to start a business or to be left alone. Wages are low, but there are many opportunities for growth and investment.
Until the events in Kiev and Crimea, people didn’t think in terms of who was born in Russia and who was born in Ukraine. Now, that may be changing.
Putin was enraged by the political fallout in Kiev in February when the Ukrainian parliament impeached pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych after he fled the capital, setting the country up for a new presidential election on May 25. By annexing Crimea, Putin is punishing Ukraine for standing up for itself. But Ukraine is a country learning to believe in itself.
Brooks said it to his team, at least in the film version, «Miracle on Ice,» as they faced the older, seasoned Russians on the ice. I say it to Ukrainians so engaged in this struggle, «You were meant to be here. … This is your time. Their time is done. It’s over.»
Dr. Robert Gamble, a Presbyterian minister in Atlanta, founded and serves as executive director of This Child Here, a nonprofit that works with former street kids and orphans in the region of Odessa, Ukraine. Gamble lived in Ukraine from 2006 to 2010 and travels there regularly. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.