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Inspired Living: April 2022

Ukraine: A fight for freedom


by Roxanne Henke


Imagine being 13 years old, and your parents tell you to pack. Whatever your family can fit in a wheelbarrow is what you’ll take as you flee the country. The year: 1899. The 13 year old: my grandfather. The country: Ukraine. The reason: Russia conscripting people into its military. (A concept they didn’t suspect when offered free land to emigrate from their native Germany to Russia.)

It gives me chills to think what our family might look like had my grandpa not left.

Now, 123 years later, history seems to be repeating itself. Except we no longer need to imagine. Our televisions broadcast images 24/7. Women and children in cars or boarding trains. A husband hands an infant to a wife as she prepares to leave the country. A small suitcase and tears are all she carries.

Young men and old stay behind, willing to defend the freedom of their beloved country.

I thought my ancestors were brave, leaving a country they knew for a country they didn’t. Today, the citizens of Ukraine are showing the world another kind of bravery. People are willing to give up their lives to keep the freedoms they now have.

My uncle was an executive for a large company in Minneapolis, Minn., who often met with Russian executives. On one visit to Minneapolis, my uncle thought the Russians would enjoy seeing an American grocery store. The group entered the store, stopped in their tracks and looked around. After a time, my uncle noticed one of the men missing from the group. He found him sitting outside on the curb, crying.

My uncle sat down beside him. “What’s wrong?”

The man shook his head and replied, “There is too much. There is just too much.” He was so overwhelmed by the abundance we take for granted that he couldn’t even stay and look at it.

Some time ago, I was fortunate enough to take a trip to Cuba, another communist country. My husband and I spent part of an afternoon being driven around Havana. I asked our guide, “Are people allowed to have their own businesses?”

He looked over his shoulder and silently stared at me. He didn’t understand my question.

I reworded it. “Could someone have their own clothing store?”

He thought. Finally, he slowly said, “Well, they would have to find fabric. Then, they would have to make a pattern. And cut it. And sew it.” He was obviously thinking outloud, exploring an idea he’d never considered. Just then, we drove past a large building. He pointed excitedly. “You can buy clothing there.” (It was a government owned-and-operated department store.)

Such is life in a communist country.

Years ago, my husband and I had the privilege of standing on Omaha Beach in France. We stood on the same sand where so many American soldiers sacrificed their lives in the Battle of Normandy to save France from Nazi occupation. They were willing to risk their lives to prevent the spread of communism across Europe, and to prevent the possibility of communism reaching the shores of America.

There is a goal greater than survival. It’s freedom.

Freedom is something we’ve taken for granted far too long. Not everyone is asked to serve on the battlefield, but there are other ways to aid the battle for freedom.

My nephew and his wife are currently living and working in Germany. To help, they put out a message on social media, asking for donations to buy supplies. Money poured in from around the world. They raised over $20,000. With suggestions from the Red Cross, they bought bulletproof vests, medical supplies and warm clothing. They packed their car, drove to the Poland/Ukraine border and met “a guy,” who drove it all into the city of Kyiv – the heart of the battle. On the way home, they drove a woman and her elderly grandmother to safety. None of them spoke the same language. They shared food and smiles. Thankfulness sounds the same in any language.

Another friend shared the idea of using vacation rental sites to rent rooms in war-torn areas, letting the “landlords” know the rooms could be used by displaced families. The replies she received from the homeowners were heartbreaking (they told of atrocities they’ve witnessed) and heartwarming (they shared what it meant to know people cared enough to help in this way).

I took her suggestion and rented an Airbnb for a week in Ukraine. This was part of her reply: “In this apartment, people really live now, who are safer here than at home. … Your help is very important for us at this time. May God bless you and your family.”

As one Ukrainian women said, “I always watched refugees on the television. I never thought I’d be one.”

Freedom isn’t free. Many gave their lives, so we can have ours.

I think back to my grandpa boarding that ship leaving Odessa. I hear what the Ukrainian people are saying now, and I can’t help but think, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Roxanne (Roxy) Henke lives in rural North Dakota. As a granddaughter of an immigrant from the Ukraine, this war feels personal. Pray for peace. You can contact Roxy at roxannehenke@gmail.com.