Mission: Light Ukraine
“Why are you going to a warzone?”
Each circumstance embodies more than one perspective. To pass through the border between fear or self-pity to a place of enduring acceptance is the lure and lust of traveling into zones of fear. My friends or experts say “don’t go” “you’ll be shot or killed or kidnapped or raped” I’m not denying that those truths exist, however, the idea of other truths,… which claim a new narrative of resilience, compassion, and hope is a reverent truth each time I cross borders. The most remarkable people with souls of angels and hearts of giants are the exquisite treasures unearthed and cherished. Not only, a witness to the impact of the lights for bettering lives; the resonating quest sparks a flame in each traveler or host by nudging our humanity. Breaching the limits of prejudice and fear is my enticement each time I go on one of these missions. So, this will suffice to deter despair or danger or death to induce me to embark each laborious voyage with the joy of a child.
You are still in the struggle and in the fight of being a human, just like everyone else is. -jonah hill
The air was thin and cold in Krakow as the train slid into the grey chilly platform as a stout older woman stepped out dressed in a grey and black uniform with matching black cap, she had short stiff bleached blond hair and heavy dark eyeliner. She started yelling in Polish. I showed her my ticket and she nodded to the steps entering the train.
Mentally kicking myself.
“Damn --why didn’t I learn some Polish.”
I always made it a habit of learning some local language before I made a journey. Practicing Ukrainian each morning was my daily constitutional ritual.
The 4 huge pieces of luggage carrying 1000 solarpuffs were like pushing 4 reluctant hippos I yanked the first two heavy pieces up each step until they were on the train then went down to get the next,-- then the woman started to yell in Polish again as she grabbed the bottom of the luggage to help push them up onto the train. Heart racing and drenched in sweat I thanked the woman and she responded with an eye roll and shaking her head as she attended to the next passenger. Slowly pushing each suitcase down the long train corridor to my sleeper cabin- I was greeted by a young blond woman with a baby setup on the first two bunks and my bunk was on the top. With no room for luggage in the cabin I sat outside the cabin until everyone settled on the train and we were off to the border between Poland and Ukraine. As I saw the other passengers settling in there was a blue eyed rosy faced boy about 10 years old in the next cabin.
He looked at me and smiled. I smiled back.
“Preveet” I said (which was “Hi” in Ukraine.)
I pulled out one of the Solarpuffs with multiple colors. As I turned the light on and popped open the lamp his eyes widened and he starred mesmerized by the transformation of the Solarpuff from flat polygon to crisp cube of color. Within the next hour every child on the train going to Ukraine had a Solarpuff and then the adults started to ask for them. As we lit up the train, I thought, “how will I show thanks all our donors who gave a light to Ukraine, Love without Boundaries to small companies to a small church group of kids from Pastor Scott Johnson, to Pat Johnson, to Bob and Willow for their generosity”, while eagerly snapping a photograph of each Ukrainian child saying “Thank You”
Panicked about missing my stop to transfer to the border crossing train in Przemysl pronounced “shemish” --. Through the corner of my eye I saw the word Przemysl on the platform sign as the train slowed to a stop.
As I started lowering the first baggage down to the platform—the doors slammed closed and bit my bag, jamming the doors open, half my bag hung out of the train and half in. Then to my horror the train started moving with my bag hanging outside.— This is like that Seinfeld episode when Kramer is inside the subway train and has a hoagie caught outside the subway car as a passerby grabs the hoagie from him as the train departs the station. Not that anyone would grab my luggage, but I stood there holding on to the handle screaming “HEEEEEEELP!!!” A lady with a dog walking outside looked on with mouth wide open as her eyes riveted on a small Asian woman with glasses hanging on to her suitcase through the gap in the doors as the train started speeding away. The cold wind blew on my face as I looked down at ground passing by in a blur. After slamming the door release button with no avail,
I surrendered and perched on a step grabbing the handle to my bag watching the snow covered beige landscape though the lips of the train doors still biting my luggage. Each snow drift looked like a pile of laundry scattered on the fields of wheat.
Hair plastered to my head with sweat- I could feel the cold steel step underneath my butt as my heart sank,
“did I miss my stop?”
“it’s ok - I’ll just back track with the four suitcases…
no problem, you got this.” I whimpered with lingering self doubt.
The train slowed to arrive at the next stop, doors un-bit my bag and I tossed all 4 suitcases off before they got bit by the train doors again.
“Dear Lord help me get to Lviv”
Then with ticket trembling in my hand and pointing with the other I asked a lady getting off the train if this was “Shemish?”
She nodded yes.
Stunned with a vortex of gratitude - this was the right stop after all--- OMG !! It was like God, the universe, and cosmos had kept me from getting off at the wrong stop!
With a thankful sigh I made my way down 2 flights of stairs, times 4, for each reluctant hippo.
At the bottom of the stairs a local musician played a violin. I felt like I was in a Dostoyevsky film …or the Godfather. I noticed a tall bearded man in a baseball cap and army green coat, white shirt with blue tie, if he knew which platform the train to Lviv was—he said he didn’t know.
But, he proceeded to help me carry all 1000 lights up two flights of stairs to the station platform. A sparkly young blond woman approached in a red conductor cap dressed in a red coat with brass buttons and black trim. Her hair perfectly curled shinned in the sunlight and her makeup looked flawless. The man gibbered in Polish and she prattled and pointed across the tracks to a small black concrete building. The man turned to me and said, “you have to come zair after 3 hours and must go to zat building to get ze train.”
He lugged my bags to the luggage room and explained to the bag keeper that I'd be getting on the next train to Lviv. I looked up to a lined map of wrinkles on the bag keepers face that started to curve up as he gazed curiously at my Asian face then said” Volonteer?” I nodded yes—then he shouted in Polish and pointed to the clock –the nice man with the cap said the bag keeper will help me get to the special platform to catch my border crossing train. Relieved and grateful for the help I turned to the man in the cap to thank him and realized he missed his train! He nodded and said it was OK- the next one would be here soon.
“Thank you, Thank you! So MUCH!!” I yelped and proceeded to film a video of him remarking on his generosity and kindness. He looked at the camera with a big smile while making a peace sign with his fingers and said “Free Ukraine”
As I gave him a hug and said goodbye, I couldn’t believe my luck at finding this kind soul that had gone above and beyond to help me get to my next destination, Lviv Ukraine.
It foreshadowed waves of kind souls encountered on this journey. This mission became their mission as it rippled with each being I met.
The coldness was intense as I started meandering through the small but beautiful station marveling at the high ceilings, old details with worn cracked paint on the walls- the place smelled of curry ramen noodles and old laundry. People were staring my way with curiosity as the afternoon light beamed in through the dirty smudged windows. I was the only Asian in the whole station.
All my travels into red zones whether Haiti, Nigeria to Puerto Rico I am amazed at the beauty of each nuance of new experiences with admiration for the most mundane. An old woman or an old man became a sight of forensic fascination-or marveling at snack stand clerk who gave free water to me because I looked like a volunteer. --defiant of the popular believe that I would be attacked, shot or kidnapped.
First Light drop
Sofiia’s father drove us to the hill top of Okhmydyt Children’s Hospital. At 4pm it was pitch dark and so was the whole city.
Sophia glided and I stumbled up a ramshackle road, carrying stuffed paper shopping bags with hundreds of SolarPuffs making sure we walked on the shoulder to avoid being hit by cars. Solarpuff in hand to light the way. The chill left us panting clouds in the air.
“why is your father waiting in the car?
He should go home! “
Sophia shook her head.
“No,… this is his mission too! He wants to do this.”
He waited 5 hours in the dark while reading a book in the car with a Solarpuff lighting the pages.
Inside the hospital the décor and smell was like an old southern mansion. We were greeted by the head of the hospital who was a hefty gray haired man in his 60’s with a stiff straight lip etched on his face, I shook his hand which dwarfed mine in his. The nurses all looked on with curious awe. Dressed in a bright pink suit I looked like a smurf next to a giant as he towered and looked down at my gift. His face cracked a smile and eyes widened as I gave him a QWNN and I explained that this would charge his phone and light his nights. A woman with a simple but elegant wool dress and confident poise came and ushered us to the first children’s ward, but not before giving several QWNNs to the nurses on staff. Enamored at how the lamp rotated and expanded from flat to a big geometric dome, one nurse piped up, “it looks like the Sydney Opera house!”. Another said it was the coolest thing she’d ever seen. More nurses came to surround us and we carefully showed how it worked. Each of them beamed a smile as they said “Thank you!”
Little did they know it took 9 months and 137 origami failures and two years and two horrible manufactures before we found one triumphant maker for the QWNN.
The phone charging was a much needed feature for them as each day they experience 8 hours of blackouts. Air raids meant lock downs which meant they could be stuck in a bunker or at a location for 3-6 hours.
Our footsteps echoed on the shiny marble of the corridor as we entered the first ward. It smelled stale with essence of sulfur and sodium, which was the same smell that came from the tap water. The light was dim since only a few of the lights were working. We entered the first room which had 4 children in beds each laying down with hanging bags next to them. Each child had bandages or casts on their arms or legs and attached to each little frail arm were tubes. I took a deep breath and started to explain the gift I was about to give them as Sophia started to translate for me.
“Hello, my name is Alice and I have a gift for you…
I am an inventor and this gift of light, gets its power form the sun…
The sun is the most powerful source of energy that comes to the earth each day.
The Russians can never take the sun away.”
“But the light of your heart and your imagination…
is more powerful than the sun. You’re born with this light and…
If you keep fighting with that light you can use it as a weapon to conquer your fears… and build your dreams…”
“You are now light Warriors….” the children gasped and giggled as they heard that.
“This is like holding the Sun in your hands.
You have a bright and powerful light in your hearts and minds just keep fighting with that light. And, never ever give up.”
I want you to know that the world hasn’t forgotten about you.
We care about you.
We love you.
You must feed this light with sunlight so it can brighten your nights and keep darkness away. It will shine bright when you need it to read or do Homework.
Even though I was tired, my energy levels shot up as I saw a child smile, it was my nourishment for my next 5 hours. Going room to room to make sure each child was gifted the light and its story
I approached a chubby cheeked boy who’s body looked so tiny in his bed..
He eagerly took the colorful cube.
“What’s your favorite color?”
“Blue” he said.
I clicked the light till blue lit up his face.
The chubby cheeks pushed up high as his face beamed.
“What a Handsome boy! “ I said.
“How smart you are!”
I glanced up to see his mom’s sleep deprived eyes brimming with tears.
“What’s wrong? Why are you crying?” I said.
She couldn’t speak. She pursed her lips together as the tears were now streaming down her pale and freckled cheeks.
“Could I give you a hug?”
she nodded yes.
Before I got my arms around her, she grabbed me with the tightest strongest bear hug. She put her head on my shoulder and wept- when she released her grip,
I smiled onto her loving face.
‘everything is going to be alright”
She nodded again.
Throughout the next 5 hours we went room to room, up and down stairs and long corridors. Some kids were too weak to sit up and we lay the Solarpuff next to them as they gazed at the rainbow of colors emanating from the cube. A slow smile would grow on each face, yet some eyes remained saddened with an absence,... perhaps the memory of their lost parent or pain of a phantom limb. Many families were back home in villages with more siblings- single moms with husbands fighting on the front lines couldn’t afford to bring the whole family there. These kids were alone for Christmas.
Every room chirped sounds of “Dya-koo-yoo” on a repeat loop.
(“Dya-koo-yoo” is “Thank You” in Ukrainian)