Michael Sampson, an American Fulbright Scholar to Ukraine, best-selling children’s author and a professor of literacy at St. John’s University, was able to escape the war-torn country to Poland. But here he shares harrowing tales from friends who haven’t been so lucky.
It’s five minutes past midnight. I’m at the Ukrainian/Poland border crossing. Lviv is 71 miles to the south. As I’m waiting for a friend and her family to cross the border to safety, I see thousands of refugees crossing into Ukraine. An estimated 1 million refugees have fled Ukraine, with more than 500,000 entering Poland. This cold morning at the border crossing, I can’t help but reflect on how we got to this moment.
I’ll always remember the email from the Institute for International Education, congratulating me on being named a Fulbright Scholar to Ukraine. It was one of the happiest days in my life. Little did I know that my Fulbright experience would be extraordinary, but for the wrong reasons.
In January, as we were launching our spring semester, the State Department started warning U.S. citizens to leave Ukraine. On Jan. 24 we were notified that we were being relocated to Poland and then one month later, on Feb. 24, Russia invaded.
This text from my friend Pavel, still in Ukraine, captures the horror of what the nation is going through:
“I hope it’s not last message I text you. Just came [out of] the cellar. we spent 2 hours sitting in there because of the artillery threat. 2 days in the raw under heavy fire. … Whole country is under heavy bombardment and ballistic rockets shooting, also RU troops breaking … borders. Fast-movers and helicopters in the air, tanks on the ground. It’s a big fight all around the country. Last night ballistic rocket blasted near my wife’s dad house. 170 ballistic rockets hit the whole Ukraine just last night. It’s horrible!
“We have issues with fuel, also people trying to withdraw cash from the ATMs, pharmacy stores, groceries are full of people, numbers are panicking. Traffic jams, people running away! Have been considering … leaving for another country, but it’s not a safe time to go anywhere. we can be killed or something. Guns, rockets, bombs everywhere. Not sure if we survive!”
On Friday, I received another text:
“Keep breathing … We are in tears all the morning so many people lost their lives … Why they do such horrible devastations to all of us, what for? Day after day, how come? Mass civilian and military casualties. … Have God guard all your family!”
Kristina, a teacher I had worked with on a literacy project, texts me almost every day, sharing her observations and worsening fears:
Monday: “We have a military curfew and we sit in our homes and in shelters at night. My card ran out of money and exchange currency does not work. … We did not realize you need to stock up on products for several weeks. We do not have enough food.”
Tuesday: “There has been an attack on our communication system and we have no working television and very limited internet. The Russians broke a television tower in the city of Kyiv. Russians don’t want us to know what is happening. … This is an information war and Russia is winning.”
Wednesday: “The Russians bombed Bafin Yar, which is the burial place of millions of Jews since the Second World War. It is blasphemy over a Holy Place. In Zhytomry near Kyiv they bombed a maternity hospital. They are without shame.”
Friday: “I’m so scared. Constantly something explodes every minute. We never have a break from bombs and have no peace. A week has passed, and it never lets up. How long can we endure this?”
When at last, I see my friend safely cross the border with her spouse and 6-year-old daughter, they have endured 38 hours in line. After hugs and happy tears, we begin the four-hour drive to Warsaw. I ask, “Why didn’t you leave before the war started?” She shares that her spouse is Ukrainian and did not want to abandon Ukraine. They did not think Russia would actually invade, but when the air raids started, they decided to leave for the sake of their young daughter. It has been “like two days in hell,” with tanks sharing the highway and the explosive sounds of bombs nearby as they drove to safety.
I continue to worry about the children, teachers and friends I left behind. The Russian dictator has stolen the home from Ukrainian children. Those children are now living in subways, terrorized at the sounds of exploding bombs. They’re missing their fathers, who are above ground trying to defend their homes from Putin’s troops and the atrocities of war.
We just received a warning to not go within 20 miles of the border by Fulbright, saying it is not safe. But of course I will continue to go. I have three more parties coming in and I want to get them to safety.
Sampson’s latest book, Armadillo Antics, comes out in April.