Returning to Ukraine

This scene from the Euromaidan revolution, when Ukrainians protested the pro-Russian policies of the former president, was taken by the writer’s father.


When Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine this past July, many people questioned how such a horrible tragedy could have occurred. The commercial flight was carrying 298 people, all of whom perished and essentially became collateral damage in the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia, two countries fiercely engaged in a battle for the occupation of Ukraine’s eastern region, where pro-Russian separatists are based. The deceased passengers hailed from all over the world, with two-thirds from the Netherlands.

It was a sad and frightening time, and yet I found myself booking my plane ticket to Ukraine the week after.

I wanted to go home.

* * *

Over the years, when people have asked me where home is, I always have struggled to answer. Similar to many Korean Americans, I maintain a foot in two cultures—I was born in Korea, but recently gained U.S. citizenship. A recent graduate of UCLA, I could easily pass for a Korean American from Southern California. But, for me, Ukraine is home.

Beginning at age 8, I grew up in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital and largest city, where I spent eight years of my life and where my parents still live.

I realize that the history, and even the existence of this country 5,000 miles across the world, is not well known to many Americans. But the current war between Ukraine and Russia in the former’s eastern region has certainly returned the country to the headlines—perhaps for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, which resulted in Ukraine’s independence in 1991. For me, these events are personal not only because I care about the welfare of my parents, but also because I believe strongly in the sovereignty of Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine may share linguistic and cultural attributes, but that should not dismiss the rich history that establishes Ukraine as its own independent, self-determined nation. Russian President Vladimir Putin may claim that his current aggressions—sending in military personnel and weapons to Ukraine—are only to “protect” the Russian-speaking population in the East, but many Ukrainians like myself see his remarks comparable to when Hitler took over Sudentenland to “protect” the German-speaking population.

When I shared with friends and relatives that I planned to travel to Ukraine right after the Malaysian airline tragedy, when civil war in the Eastern region was imminent, they thought I was crazy. I have to admit that I, too, was initially nervous about my decision. But I had been wrestling with a sense of guilt for enjoying the safety and comfort of Los Angeles, while my parents and friends in Ukraine were living under a state of fear and war. In August, the Korean embassy informed my parents that when Ukraine reaches crisis level 3, a private plane would be mobilized to evacuate Korean immigrants. Ukraine had already reached level 2 at that time. Even after hearing this warning, my parents nonchalantly shared with me that they had no intention of leaving Ukraine anytime soon.

My parents’ decision to stay initially gave me panic attacks. I obsessively kept up with the news and checked in on them to make sure they were OK. Their attitude and love for Ukraine, as well as that of my friends there, ultimately inspired me to be courageous and return home, so I could support them during this crucial period in Ukraine’ s struggle for independence.

* * *

Upon my arrival in Ukraine on Sept. 2, I headed straight to Maidan, downtown Kiev’s main square. Growing up, Maidan was where I would hang out, often at McDonald’s, which is still considered today to be a nice restaurant by the locals. I expected Maidan to be deserted, but reinforced by a sinister military presence. Instead, I found people peacefully strolling and shopping on Khreshchatyk, the main street. It was hard to believe that, only months earlier, tents, demonstrations and protestors had occupied this area during what’ s known as the Euromaidan revolution. The revolution was set off after the former president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, suspended an agreement for Ukraine to join the European Union, in favor of getting cheap gas and loans from Russia. The protestors demanded greater European integration and less dependence on Russia, which is seen, especially by the younger generation in Ukraine, as a threat to its sovereignty. Tensions greatly escalated after Yanukovych ordered special forces to open fire on the civilian protestors, resulting in the deaths of 104.

As a result of the Euromaidan revolution, Yanukovych fled the country, and patriotic fervor spread across Ukraine. Standing at the center of where this revolution took place was an emotional experience for me. Although the violence in Kiev had long since subsided, the air still felt tense and solemn, perhaps because everyone there knows the war rages on in the Eastern part of the country. I witnessed people wearing Ukrainian national attire and accessories in blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, while circling the square, honoring the civilians who died for this nation’s sovereignty. Tears ran down my face as I encountered a choir of senior citizens singing Ukrainian patriotic songs for the heroes of the Euromaidan and the more recent Donbas war in the East. From Donbas alone, the death count exceeds 3,800, according to the United Nations.

Though I was not in Ukraine during the revolution, the same patriotic fervor seemed to wash over me when I was in the country. I never expected to feel this way; it’s all the more surprising because there was a time I actually despised Ukraine.

My parents moved my brother and me to Ukraine in 2000, after we had previously lived in the Philippines, as well as in the U.S. I remember people staring at us in shock and wonder because many had never encountered East Asians before. My parents’ work in Ukraine involves building churches, orphanages and rehab centers for people with drug and alcohol abuse problems. But even so, upon first moving there, we weren’t welcomed with open arms. I have distinct memories of my father getting arrested for not carrying his passport to the grocery store or being cursed out or catcalled on the streets. I was also subject to ridicule while walking the streets, but had conditioned my eyes and ears not to let any of it bother me. In 2008, a group of neo-Nazi youths attacked my then-16-year-old brother, resulting in a chipped tooth, a lightly battered body and a major change in my family’s life. After this incident, my parents decided to send my brother, then 17, and me, 16, to America, where they felt we would be safer. My parents, however, stayed in Ukraine and continued their work.

Pot-Comment-DJ14-Family0668Sera Chang with her parents and older brother, in 2000, when the family immigrated to Ukraine.

Over the years, I could have easily remained bitter about a country that seemed to treat my family with such hostility, and even violence, were it not for my parents’ intimate ties to Ukraine. With age and maturity, I have come to realize that it was not an entire country that banished me, but rather individuals who mistreated us probably out of fear of the unknown and the foreign. Interestingly now, with the presence of LG and Samsung in Ukraine, the Korean population has considerably grown and, along with it, an increased level of cultural awareness about Korea. During my trip back to Ukraine, I noticed I did not turn as many heads as I used to. And, over the past nearly 15 years, the Ukrainian people have certainly embraced my parents, who have now shifted their ministry work to focus on assisting refugees moving west as a result of the war.

Since the war began, about 260,000 Ukrainians have been displaced, according to the United Nation’s refugee agency, but the numbers probably reach into the millions because of the many who are staying with friends and families. With the large numbers of refugees moving west, my parents have partnered with local churches and other Korean immigrant families to provide clothes, medicine and household items for the refugees, whom they are also helping to find homes and work.

It was a rewarding experience for me personally to hand out donations from Korean families to Ukrainian families. To me, this symbolized the Korean people’s ability to embrace and participate in rebuilding Ukraine. I had a chance to meet families staying in a nearby abandoned family resort, which had been transformed into a free shelter hosting about 400 refugees. Many of the refugees I met had left family members (usually their grandparents) behind to guard their homes from being pillaged by pro-Russian separatists. Because many train stations and airports had been taken over by the separatists, the refugees had to take a long and dangerous road to get here, forced to confront either separatists or Ukrainian nationalists along the way.

Pot-Comment-DJ14-20140911_174327The writer, with a Ukrainian refugee named Lilya, who with her family fled the war in the East.

I befriended a girl named Lilya, a recent high school graduate and a refugee from the East. Lilya and her family had to cross a total of 25 checkpoints on the 15-hour drive to their relative’s house from Luhansk, a city that had been sieged by the separatists. Armed men guarded each checkpoint, intentionally concealing their flag that shows their affiliation to either Russia or Ukraine.

“At the checkpoint, guards point their machine guns at you. They ask whether you are for Russia or Ukraine, and also check by listening which language you speak to them,” Lilya shared. “Without warning, they can pull the trigger.” The armed men also check the age of the men traveling. If Lilya’s father, who is 40, had been a year younger, the armed men would have forced him to fight in the war, regardless of his national identity, she said. Thankfully, Lilya said her family had managed to pass all 25 checkpoints by strategically using either the Russian or Ukrainian language with the right guards.

While in Ukraine, I actually spent most of my time in the kitchen. This was the opposite of what I had envisioned when I planned this trip; I pictured action-packed scenes with me wearing a bulletproof jacket and directly helping refugees. Instead, I humbly peeled potatoes and washed piles and piles of dishes, as part of an effort to feed the volunteers who were directly assisting the refugee families. In hindsight, the kitchen was the perfect place for me to be. It was the perfect spot from which to eavesdrop on some conversations about Ukraine. I heard about a pastor named Sergei, who went twice to the city of Donetsk in the East to evangelize and rebuild shelled houses. Due to the influx of covert Russian weapons, he told me that a stranger on the street tried to sell him a machine gun for only 400 Hrivna (about $30). In addition, I was hearing many stories about how pro-Russian separatists had proclaimed Russian orthodoxy to be the official religion, leaving no tolerance for other religions, and targeting even Protestant Christians. Christian churches had been burned down and pastors had received death threats, adding to the number of refugees fleeing from the East.

The conflict in Ukraine may seem distant and unrelatable for many Korean Americans, but in a way, it is not so different from the story of Korea, when it was divided in 1945, followed by the Korean War. With Russia’ s annexation of most of the southern peninsula known as Crimea, internationally recognized as part of Ukraine, in March and the ongoing war in the East, two ideologies appear to be tearing Ukraine into two nations. The sight of armed pro-Russian separatists guarding the eastern borders echoes the sorrowful stories of divided Korean families. This parallel gives Koreans even more of an intimate reason to care about Ukraine.

After witnessing Korean families reach out to Ukrainian refugees, I believe that a beautiful relationship will continue to grow between the two peoples. For my parents, this means finding homes for refugees and simply being present in their lives. For me, it means peeling potatoes, listening to refugees’ stories and writing about them, in the hope that others may join in being present for them, too. I am a Korean American Ukrainian, after all, and I want to take care of my home.


This article was published in the December 2014/January 2015 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the December/January issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).