Blue Skies – An Unexpected Journey Home

I’ve waited a week to write this post as life still feels frozen to me. I have moments where I feel like I am just a body going through the motions, waiting to catch up with my mind and the reality of life happening around me. On Monday, March 16, I evacuated Ukraine. The borders were closing and all flights were to be suspended in and out of the country starting at midnight. I had to get out, and had to do it fast.

It was Wednesday, March 11. I was teaching a class about hotels and tourism. I received an email that my flight to Turkey in two weeks had been cancelled. I wondered about my flight to Lithuania the following day. I tried to remain composed as I finished my lesson. Little did I know what was happening in the capital of Ukraine, two hours away.

I finished my class and went to the teachers’ room. The panic started. I was met with concerned faces and worry. I was missing something. The teachers informed me that the government had a meeting and there was a discussion that all universities, schools, and events with over 200 people were to be cancelled. I remember telling one of my colleagues, “I hope they don’t send me home”.

On Thursday, March 12, the government confirmed its decision: all universities, schools, and gatherings of more than 200 people were to be suspended. I received messages from my colleagues: we were on a three-week quarantine and life would resume on April 3. I boarded a bus to Kyiv and met my friend at a coffee shop. Our flight to Lithuania hadn’t been cancelled yet. We weighed our options, and decided we couldn’t risk being stuck in another country if the borders suddenly closed. Instead of going on our anticipated trip, we spent the evening in line at the Ukraine International Airline office in Kyiv.

We couldn’t get a refund, so we opted to change our flights to May. We figured that we would likely have a better chance of traveling by then and the weather would be nicer anyway. It wasn’t our plan, but we had hope we would be able to travel again soon.

We spent the night trying to distract ourselves from our new reality, doing what we could to avoid thinking about what the next day would bring. I remember sleeping in until nine o’clock, something I hadn’t done in months. The sun was shining through the curtains. After such a bleak and grey winter, it was a rare sight to see the sun shining. We decided that we would be “tourists” for the day and try to enjoy our time off. It was one of the most beautiful days I experienced in Ukraine, and I’ll never forget it.

Throughout the day, we had received updates from other Fulbrighters in different countries. There was a rumor that we had “voluntary departure” which meant we could leave our posts with no penalty, receive the remainder of our stipend, and obtain Fulbright alumni status. As the day continued, we went through moments where one of us was glued to the phone, constantly checking for updates from the United States, Ukraine, and Fulbright. We took turns reminding each other to put the phone away and enjoy the day. We did just that.

The sun was setting. We received an email from our program directer. Our “voluntary departure” option was confirmed*. We had to decide by Tuesday, March 17, if we were going to stay or leave. Hours after, we received news that the Ukrainian government was suspending all flights to and from the country on March 17 at midnight. What ensued after was something that I cannot relive right now. I cannot write about the pain, fear, and devastation I experienced in those moments. I cannot write about that night, the emotion, the passion, and the uncertainty.

On Saturday, March 14, I made the decision to leave Ukraine. I boarded one last bus back to my home city of Zhytomyr. The tears flowed and I couldn’t stop. The sun was shining when I left Kyiv, and by the time I returned, it was pouring rain. It was like the city was crying too.

I arrived in my apartment. I broke down. My body laid on the floor as I cried, unable to stop the pain. I booked my flight home with tears streaming down my face. It was time to go. Over the next 24 hours, I packed up my little apartment, I ate one last Ukrainian meal, I went to my favorite coffee stand, and I said goodbye the people and city that changed my life. My time in Ukraine was over, my job was left unfinished, and life as I knew it was gone in the blink of an eye.

At this moment, I cannot continue to write. I know this story is not finished. Over the next several weeks, I will be writing a series of short stories that will be compiled into a book called, Blue Skies. My dream was taken away from me, but nothing can take away the life I experienced in Ukraine. These stories will keep my dream alive, they will give me hope, and they will be a way for me to honor Ukraine and the beautiful people, places, and memories I hold deeply in my heart.

There is one thing I know and it is this, “when you can’t go back, you have to worry only about the best way of moving forward”. This is my way of moving forward.

*The Fulbright program has since been suspended worldwide.