Ukraine has always held a special place in our hearts. It was there that three sets of Gerald’s and my grandparents or great-grandparents were born. Our Mennonite ancestors found shelter from pressure and persecution in Northern Europe in the 1700s in what was then southern Russia, invited by Catherine the Great to farm the steppes of Ukraine. They flourished there, although they never integrated with the Russians much beyond making Russian pancakes and borscht.
But policies changed, and life grew dangerous for them after the death of Catherine the Great, and many began to set their sights on the “new country.” My father’s parents both immigrated as children with their families from southeastern Ukraine to the United States around the turn of the 20th century.
The family eventually settled in Oklahoma and Kansas, where my father, Herb Friesen, grew up and then married my mother, Ruth (Wiebe) in 1955. My parents moved to Afghanistan in 1969, where my father was an ophthalmologist at Noor Eye Institute and my mother cared for the five of us kids and volunteered at the hospital.
Living in Kabul, we watched the country blossom into a seemingly stable country, full of hope and promise. Our world was turned upside down, however, when we were forced to leave the country just prior to the 1979 Soviet invasion. We ended up in Pakistan three years later, where my parents worked with Afghan refugees.
Throughout this time, I always considered Russians the enemy. In my mind, modern Russia had no connection with the Russia that had sheltered my ancestors. Dad must have thought about this, though, because he used to tell Afghan refugees that his own parents were refugees, and in this they found connection.
During my freshman year at Tabor College in 1989, I was chatting with a Russian exchange student when he found out I had been born and raised in Afghanistan.
“Afghanistan?” he said. “I always wanted to go fight there! But I couldn’t go as a soldier because of health reasons, so I settled on working in a factory making land mines to be used in Afghanistan.”
I was stunned.
My words came tumbling out: “Do you have any idea of the pain your country caused Afghanistan? How many lives it destroyed? How many people your land mines maimed and killed?”
“I never thought about it,” he responded. “I thought we were helping Afghanistan. For myself, I thought fighting would make me a real man.”
Silence. Reaching across the table between us, he said, “Do you forgive me?”
I stared at him as my worlds collided. There I was at a Mennonite college, the granddaughter of immigrants from Ukraine, chased out of my birth country by Russian invaders, looking into the face of one of the Russians who had sent shattered bodies staggering to Dad’s hospital.
Russia, the protector in my family’s story, was connecting with Russia, the destroyer. How could I forgive someone who had participated in the war in Afghanistan?
Silence. “I forgive you,” I finally choked out.
Around the same time, my parents were shopping in northern Afghanistan, where they had moved, when they stumbled across the tapestry you see pictured here. They were shocked. What was a Russian tapestry depicting Jesus as a shepherd doing in a bazaar in a Muslim country? Did it come with Russian soldiers? Had it been traded through the years and miles and ended up here?
Mom loved the tapestry and hung it in their house in Hillsboro, Kan., when they retired. Later, when she moved to assisted living in town after my father died, she had someone hang it for her in the hallway outside her door.
Visiting her soon after, as I walked down the hallway, I stopped short in front of another tapestry — with the same dimensions, colors and style. Where did it come from? I found out it had come from Ukraine with Mennonite immigrants, ancestors of another resident.
A tale of two tapestries: one bought in Afghanistan, representing the border crossing that brought Russian soldiers, the other representing our ancestors from Ukraine coming across the ocean. The two worlds came together again in that hallway.
Hearing the Russian rhetoric now that they are “helping” Ukraine sounds all too familiar. This is the dark rationale and attack of a president who cannot accept that his Soviet world collapsed years ago and who struggles to cover the ears of his people to what is really happening now.
Like the interwoven story of the tapestries, Ukraine now fights for its life as it unravels its long history from Russia’s and struggles to create its own beautiful tapestry.
Ukraine, you are in our hearts.
Julie Reimer lives in Siloam Springs, Ark., with her husband, Gerald, and three daughters in and out of the house from high school and college. They attend Siloam Springs Bible Church.