Meet Maryna: Resilience from Ukraine

Now in the eighth month of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, it feels poignant to write about Maryna and my visit to Moldova, especially after the recent series of escalated missile attacks targeting cities across Ukraine. I sit on the couch in…

The post Meet Maryna: Resilience from Ukraine appeared first on Medical Teams International.

Now in the eighth month of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, it feels poignant to write about Maryna and my visit to Moldova, especially after the recent series of escalated missile attacks targeting cities across Ukraine. I sit on the couch in my heated room writing with my laptop, safe and sound, while many Ukrainians huddle in bomb shelters or stairways of subway stations. They hold each other and wait.

Ukrainian refugees huddle together with luggage while in transit.
Ukrainian refugees at the start of the conflict in March 2022 (photo by Jana Čavojská)

As a global health organization, our storytelling most often focuses on the ways in which we are able to help people around the world access health care by leveraging donations, volunteers and prayers — stories that capture who we are as a collaborative community of support surrounding this important work of humanitarian response. We tell success stories of wonderful people who receive help and go on to live fulfilling lives, often uplifting those around them. Less often shared is the story of how the people we serve impact us profoundly and help us find hope when it feels so inaccessible. On a week like this one, with what seems like endless tragedy, that’s what meeting people like Maryna and hearing her story does for me — helps me find hope.

Meet Maryna

Maryna, a 39-year-old Ukrainian woman from Odessa, is a nurse, a single mother of two boys, Vlad (15) and Egor (6), and a daughter to Nina, the 72-year-old mother she cares for. She is now a refugee. I met her in April 2022 during my time in Moldova.

Maryna stands with her younger son Egor in the refugee accommodation center
Maryna with her younger son, Egor, at a refugee accommodation center in Moldova

In the evening on Sunday, October 9, I receive a message from Maryna via text. It’s an update that she’s doing well after recently settling into an apartment in Romania, and she is relieved now that her family was able to get some humanitarian assistance. We message a while longer. She tells me about the city she lives near and how it compares to where she was living since late April when she left Moldova for Bulgaria. Then I go to bed. During the night, she messages me again:

“Now the whole country is being bombed. My friend sits in a corridor with her daughter.”

The friend she spoke of is in Odessa, Maryna’s hometown, a large port city in southwestern Ukraine.

The following morning, I read her text and turn on the news, devastated by the many attacks across Ukraine. The voice on the broadcast lists off the locations where missiles are known to have impacted, “Kyiv, Dnipro, Kharkiv, Lviv, Zhytomyr, Vinnytsia, Zaporizhzhia, Mykolaiv…”

As the list of cities comes in, faces and names and conversations with Ukrainians I met in Moldova come to mind with them. When I hear there were explosions in Odessa too, my heart drops in my chest knowing that’s where Maryna calls home. That it’s the place she loves so much and prays to return to her apartment just as she left it.

“The week passed quietly,” she often tells me in our conversations, “we just really want to go home.”

The memories I have of hearing the stories of the pain it brought them to leave home suddenly feel fresh in my mind again. Even if the moments of despair I heard were never translated into English, through their tone I understood their trepidation. It’s as if I’m back in the clinic room listening to the distressed discussion among Ukrainian women who just received updates from people back home about the recent shellings.

For many of us outside of Ukraine, other than inflation, the war hasn’t dramatically affected us. Nor does it weigh on our minds every single moment of the day. Not the way it has on the Ukrainians who had to make the choice to leave their home behind. Who repeatedly wonder if they did the right thing.

On Tuesday, the attacks on Ukraine in residential areas continue. Wednesday and Thursday are no different. More missiles. More death. But I can’t just stay comfortable on my couch and do nothing. I have to do something because the words that circle in my mind are Maryna’s response when I shared with her how amazed I was by the resilience she showed even though she’s facing what I suspect is one of the most difficult things that she has ever been through. Maryna tells me:
Screenshot of a WhatsApp message, "As long as people help, there is resilience"

As long as people help, there is resilience. Maryna’s words challenge me. They stress the importance of showing up for people, especially when the initial shock of tragedy is over. After the bombing stops and the dust settles, after the sirens go silent, after the video stops rolling. This is when the reality of change sets in for the refugee. When home is not home any longer.

Life in a refugee accommodation center

Maryna radiates a gentle spirit, good humor and generosity, and when you meet her, even though she’s going through an immense amount of turmoil, her optimism is contagious. She seems familiar, like a friend you already know.

When we first meet, she tells me she arrived a week and a half prior to the particular refugee accommodation center I was visiting in Moldova and that she is only able to stay there for two weeks. Before arriving there, she, with her two young sons and mother, had already lived at two other refugee accommodation centers for weeks at a time. It is an unstable situation, and I hear the anxiety in her voice as she describes her fear and frustration, never knowing where to go next and how long they will be able to stay. In spite of this, Maryna volunteers as a nurse at the refugee accommodation centers.

“I’ve been helping people who have been having symptoms like diarrhea, vomiting, eye sores. Other cases have been more complicated and need to be seen by a doctor. I’ve been advising people on taking pain medication, taking measurements of temperature or blood pressure. I’ve been helping the volunteer [Medical Teams] doctor and medical attendant, and if they are not here, I can do my best to help patients or refer them to follow up with the doctor when they return. I cannot prescribe medicines even though I may know what someone needs. But I can take note of their situation and pass it on when the doctor returns.”

Maryna provides care at the refugee accommodation center Maryna takes the blood pressure of a Ukrainian refugee at the accommodation center

 

I watch as she carefully puts a blood pressure cuff on an elderly woman. It’s evident she is the type of nurse you hope to have if you ever end up in the hospital. Maryna shares with me that one of her favorite things about being a nurse is connecting with people.

Medical Teams volunteer medical staff visit this refugee accommodation center almost daily to check on refugees living there and provide medical care to those in need. The day after we meet, Maryna decides to leave for Bulgaria with another Ukrainian woman and her daughter who lived at the refugee accommodation center. The woman heard from some friends of an opportunity for longer-term accommodation, so in the early morning, they leave in their cars.

A few days later, I return to the refugee accommodation center with Medical Teams volunteers. The center is busy again. Children are doing crafts and running around. Lunch just ended. The clinic door is closed, so I’m not surprised when I look around that I don’t find Maryna near, but I still expect to see her that day. After some time passes, I come across Lina, one of the volunteers who helps run the center, and ask her if Maryna is around. Lina explains that Maryna left the accommodation center and went on to Poland. I can’t help but feel concerned knowing the difficult situations that refugees, especially women, can find themselves in when crossing borders.

The next evening, Maryna and her family are on my mind. I remember she provided her contact information on a form I had her fill out when I interviewed her. After finding it stowed away in a notebook, I start writing a text to her. I use Google translate to send my name and that I’m with Medical Teams International. I remind her that I was the person who interviewed her the week before.

Me (Carmen): “I was at the refugee accommodation center where we met, and Lina mentioned you moved to Poland. I hope your journey there was safe.”

I mention that I am sending some photos I took — one of her caring for a woman at the center and one that I took of her with her younger son, Egor. After several failed tries from adding the country code incorrectly, I finally get it right. About six minutes later, a response makes my phone buzz.

Maryna: “Hello Carmen. We left for Bulgaria. I’m so glad you found me.”

Epilogue: What happens next?

During our first text exchange, Maryna shared another number with me to contact her, and since then, we’ve messaged regularly. (I later learned she was surprised that I was able to get in touch with her in the first place. Thankfully, she had left the Ukrainian number I first wrote to on roaming.) Sometimes the conversation is light, and I get updates of her sweet young boys. Other times it’s filled with concern for the future. I wonder a lot about the things she’s experiencing and the weight of the worry on her shoulders every day.

She writes, “You know, the worst thing now is that I don’t know what to do. Children should go to school, we need to live somewhere and much more, and I can’t put it all together and figure out how to act.”

Maryna's son with a Ukrainian flag on Ukrainian Independence Day
Maryna’s son celebrating Ukrainian Independence Day

I wonder what it must be like to feel as though your life is “normal” one day and then be labeled a refugee the next. To want to go home so badly but continually make the decision for safety’s sake to stay in a place that is completely unfamiliar and at times unfriendly. To feel as though the entire world is watching one day, showing their support for you, and then the next day realizing that headlines fade and people move on. I think of how it must hurt to feel as though most people have forgotten the awful reality you’ve been living every single day. To worry if your children will ever get to experience the fullness of life and all the dreams you hoped for them.

And I wonder how it’s possible that somehow Maryna and I live on the same planet with this conflict raging on and on, yet I can be comfortable in my home, sitting here surrounded by the same kind of normalcy she once knew less than a year ago.

My mind often drifts back to the words she shared with me in Moldova. I think I go back to them as a reminder of why it’s so important to show up for people. Or maybe in search of an answer. They confront my thoughts and ask me to help in whatever way I can. I asked Maryna back in April what she wished people outside of her context understood about the situation she now finds herself in:

“We refugees are the same as everyone else. I wish people were more sensible toward refugees, and help them out. Understand that every refugee feels alone. Many people’s futures are broken. We are living in uncertainty — I don’t know what will happen next. What else?… Our dreams, our hopes are killed. It’s difficult to live every day only thinking of just getting through today. Thinking of how to stay secure, asking, What will happen next? Who will help you? Someone may be unkind to you.”

The act of being unkind and unwelcoming feels like a sharper offense than ever after hearing Maryna recall several situations after she arrived from Ukraine where people treated her poorly because her family had fled into their country and were getting assistance. She shared with me that her response to them was the importance of kindness and a message that none of us know what life-changing moment we could be faced with the next moment, let alone the next day.

During our text conversations, I learn that Maryna lost her father when she was only fifteen years old. That he died in her arms after suffering a heart attack. She has known grief before, more personally, and weathered some of the most difficult things life can offer. I also learn that this painful moment in her life was what influenced her desire to become a nurse. I come to understand that this heavy badge of life experience she wears is why helping people is so important to her in the moments when it seems like it would be so easy to curl up in a ball and hide.

Maryna shares, “Please be kind, you don’t know where you will be tomorrow.”

And adds, “Everyone thinks, It will not happen to me. It might happen in Iraq or other countries. Nobody thought that it would ever happen to Ukraine… what’s the purpose of fighting?”

Maryna and her mother, Nina, celebrate Ukrainian Independence Day
Maryna and her family celebrate Ukrainian Independence Day

I can’t help but wonder what it would be like if we lived as though Maryna’s reality — and the reality of people in Yemen, Syria, Ethiopia, Palestine, Venezuela, and in so many places of conflict, turmoil, starvation and suffering around the world — was also a very real possibility for each of us. My conversations with Maryna, above all, remind me that my plans for tomorrow are not promised. They challenge me to ask myself if I would show up in the way she did for her people amidst her own suffering. I hope so, but for this, I don’t have the answer. For now, I work to show up today and the subsequent days ahead with kindness for the people in my path.

That alone makes a difference.


 

Maricarmen Miller

 

Maricarmen (Carmen) Miller
Communications Officer

 

 

 

The post Meet Maryna: Resilience from Ukraine appeared first on Medical Teams International.

This post was originally published on Medical Teams International.


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