My five-year-old grandson looked at my shirt over facetime and asked, “Why are you wearing a blue and yellow ribbon, Nana?”
“We brought warm clothes for the people in Ukraine. Can you say Ukraine?”
“Ukraine.” He looks back down at his Star Wars Legos then shouts into the kitchen, “Mom, Nana got a ribbon for being a good worker.”
I follow my husband as he carries a large box of supplies that we had just bought at Costco, and I see red lanterns and many Pho’ restaurants as we walk down the street. I think of refugees from the Vietnam war of the 1970s and their descendants who have created a home in this area of San Diego and today millions of new refugees are fleeing war in Ukraine.*
I see a yellow and blue sign at a storefront that reads, Help Ukraine. Welcome.
We walk in and are greeted by two young women. To the right, I see boxes of diapers stacked to the ceiling in the middle of the room and brown boxes stacked to the side by the front window. My husband puts down the box and says, “We brought clothes and ibuprofen”. The tall dark-haired woman nods. The shorter woman says, “She does not speak English. I am Victoria. Thank you so much.” On a small table are yellow sunflowers and signs. One reads, Stay with Ukraine, and the other, Freedom from Tyranny. My eyes get big, a lump grows in my throat and a wave of disbelief flies through my body like a cold wind. I turn to comfort these women and offer my sympathy for their trauma. The dark-haired woman places her hand on her chest, and I copy her. Her eyes tear up. Mine too. My heart breaks for her.
She goes to the table, takes a blue and yellow ribbon, and pins it on my husband’s shirt. He tears up. Then she gestures toward me and I nod. She slowly pulls the spool and cuts one yellow ribbon, then one blue one, twists them together, adds a safety pin, and tries to pin it onto my orange sweatshirt. But she can’t quite manage it. As her fingers move slowly, I have an urge to help her, but I pause. This does not need to go fast. It was almost like I was supposed to stand at attention, be alert to this moment and not interfere. As she worked, I had an image that I was being pinned with a corsage before prom, and then like I was a soldier receiving a medal.
I felt both proud and embarrassed. We hadn’t done much. Victoria told us she had been here seven months, came here to go to graduate school, and that she had left her husband and parents in Ukraine. Her eyes looked far away and lost, then she blinked to cut off her tears. I asked if we could hug them, and we hugged each of the women for a long time. My heart filled to bursting both with warmth and pain.
We left with daze-filled hearts full of sorrow and love for these poor women; women with no power to save their home or their families; women who can only swat away their worst fears for a few hours each day by gathering boxes and pinning ribbons on donors.
As we drive home, my chest feels warm. Every time I inhale I smell lemon and cedar from Victoria’s perfume. It lingers on my orange sweatshirt and I feel a kind of reverence. I place my hand on my chest and stroke the silky blue/yellow ribbon.
*To donate in San Diego, go to houseofukraine.org
See the list of items needed and not needed