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First Person

June 6, 2022
by Alexa Zahlada '23, as told to Anabel Sosa
Alexa drawing (Illustration by Christina Dallorso)

Back in 2009, I moved from Ukraine to the U.S. to live with my mom, who was studying 

to become a doctor. Years later, I remember her sitting me down in the car and saying, “I cannot afford to raise you here and I don’t know what to do.” I really wanted my mom to become a doctor here in the States, that was her dream, so I decided to go back on my own to Ukraine and to live with my dad. But we weren’t really close. All of a sudden, I was living with someone I didn’t really know all that much. 

It was 2014, and I was 13 years old when I moved back to Ukraine. I didn’t know what was going on in the country at the time, and hadn’t spoken the language in five years. There’s this notion in Ukraine that if you move to the U.S., you have a lot of money. A lot of the time, they would kind of scoff at me and think, “Oh, that entitled American Girl,” even though I was Ukrainian. I would come back home in tears, because all these classmates saw me as this other person who is not really Ukrainian. 

One day, my dad said, “You need to learn the language again.” For the first month or two of school, he would be my scribe. Slowly, I started understanding how to write in Ukrainian myself. One of the people I really looked up to was my Ukrainian teacher. She had this beautiful, lyrical way of speaking the language. I would just try to spend more time with her after class to pick up those phrases myself. By the end of that year, I got the highest mark in the Ukrainian language exam out of my entire class, which I was really proud of. But they still said, “Oh, she’s just good at memorizing things. But she’s not really Ukrainian.”

During the Soviet collapse, when my parents were children, no one was speaking Ukrainian at home. Russian was the default. Before 2014, if you spoke Ukrainian at home, people would think you were a nationalist or someone who was on the far right. Now attitudes have really shifted: Young Ukrainian families understand that it’s important to speak Ukrainian with your children very early on. After 2014, when Russia illegally annexed Crimea, there was a conscious choice by a lot of young Ukrainians to speak Ukrainian. Everybody showed up in vyshyvanka, which is our national attire—these really beautiful embroidered shirts. It became clear that our national identity was so much stronger than before.

My grandpa has lived his entire life in Kyiv. That’s his entire existence. He’s still there right now. We’re constantly talking to him. If it were up to me, I would have told my mom to take him with her. But he refused to leave. He’s not very mobile, but he said if he were able to fight he would be on the front lines right now.

Lately, with the front line getting closer to Kyiv, my grandfather will hear bombing or shelling going on in a nearby district. I will pick up the phone and ask, “Are you okay? What’s going on?” And he’ll say, “Oh, I mean, I’ve heard some shelling, but it’s 15 minutes away.”

It’s kind of crazy how much people normalize things, right? 

There have been a lot of power outages, and his electricity was out for a while. Wi-Fi is nonexistent. It’s really hard to get a hold of him sometimes. Thankfully, there are some really kind people who are volunteering to deliver groceries. He has survived cancer twice, and right now he’s still in a recovery process. He’s not really able to walk to the store, or even walk to a subway station to seek shelter if bombings were to happen in his area. 

At the end of the day, I still feel hopeless about my grandpa. 

Hopefully, this nightmare ends soon enough. 

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