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Travel: Europe Can't Look Away from Ukraine. The U.S. Shouldn't Either.
My notes from visiting Europe this summer.
Last weekend, I dropped into Manolo’s Bakery on Central Ave. to pick up some tres leches cakes for my wife, Rebekah. The cashier gave me a free Colombian pandebonos (bread with cheese) to try on my way out; it’s one of the best savory offerings I’ve had from the East Charlotte staple.
However, what caught my eye was that Manolo’s is one of the few businesses in Charlotte still actively raising money for the people of Ukraine. The bakery offers cookies with the blue and yellow hues of the Ukrainian flag, and ways to donate to survivors of the conflict. This should come as no surprise to longtime customers; in addition to travelling to Poland to help Ukrainian refugees, Manolo Betancur was named the 2022 Upstanding Person of the Year by local publication Unpretentious Palate for his work to help the country.
With news of kamikaze drone strikes refocusing attention on the conflict, it’s important we don’t forget what is happening over there. Unlike Manolo, most people in the United States have been spared the reality of Vladimir Putin’s illegal war of aggression against Ukraine. When I travelled to Europe earlier this year, however, I witnessed the reality of the conflict in a way video cannot prepare you for.
Rebekah and I spent most of our time in Berlin. The international city is approximately 13 hours from the Ukrainian border with Poland if you take public transportation, and only 10 hours if you’re lucky to have a car. It is also one of the main entry points to the EU for the millions of war refugees.
When we arrived in May, the Berlin Hauptbahnhof (Central Train Station) was plastered with blue and yellow; signs in Ukrainian directed new arrivals to resources including lodging, food, and childcare. Other large public signs featured slogans in support of the Ukrainian people; unlike on Twitter, there were human beings to connect to the hashtags.
The Kids Corner is heartrending. It was in the back of the train station, tucked away from public view. Makeshift walls protected children from the noise and strangers, and drawings in crayon gave the place a lived-in feel. They described their mission as such in a March donation appeal:
“Kids Corner’s purpose is twofold. We provide relief to mothers, who have travelled for several days before arriving in Berlin. We offer them a place and support in taking care of their children while they gather information about their next steps or take much-needed breaks. But most importantly, we provide support to the children, by offering them a playful distraction in this stressful situation.”
After a couple days in Berlin, we decided to take a train to Poland. A small Ukrainian family was seated behind us on the train, a mother and two children, one of many families processed and resettled by the German government. They left the train in the Berlin exurbs, before the farmland and windmills, with all the luggage they could carry. We would see more sights like this throughout our trip.
We continued our travels. In Frankfurt, older refugees begged us for Euros or a bite to eat in the train station. Later in Belgium, Ukrainian signs guided us to get our COVID-19 tests as we left the country. This is what a refugee crisis looks like during the pandemic.
While it’s easy to laugh at memes like “Russian warship, go fuck yourself!” and cheer for Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy on the news, we have the luxury of looking away from the human cost of the war. This is not new; Americans didn’t have to witness the Holodomor (Great Famine), Chernobyl, or the invasion of Crimea firsthand either. When the conflict comes up, it’s easy to engage in whataboutism: what about starving kids in [insert country name here]? What about the Middle East, or Africa? What about poverty here in the US? To which I’m reminded of the words of James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
We may not be able to do much to help Ukraine and its diaspora beyond donations, weapons, and Congressional funding. However, if we don’t ignore this crisis, perhaps we will see and emulate the example of other western democracies that are not hesitating to take in refugees from violence. We could ask our elected officials to pursue asylum and refugee policies based on humanitarianism and aid, not exclusion; not only for Ukrainians but also for our neighbors fleeing wars and gang violence.
It’s also important to note that U.S. immigration policy is a clear example of structural racism. The quota system prioritizes white immigrants over others and hasn’t seen a significant update in almost sixty years. We’ve given up on our moral obligations to refugees and asylum seekers. Penalties are harsher for Hispanic immigrants, and there is no policy rationale other than prejudice.
While Emma Lazarus wrote “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,” she also worked as an advocate for Jews fleeing Russian persecution. Hopefully, by the time the world experiences its next refugee crisis, the United States can be ready to be the “Mother of Exiles” again.
Note: I’ll be travelling to Europe again in two weeks; if it’s of interest, I’ll report back on how things have changed.