Kindness—Free to Give, Priceless to Receive

March 23, 2022

By Mila Nataliya A. Govorukha (from Kharkiv, Ukraine)

I walk in. I hear around me melodic language, but understand nothing.

How many times have I been in a similar place? An association or nonprofit that works with those in need: people with various types of disabilities, at times difficult to even look at; children with special needs, such as blindness, deafness, Down syndrome; single mothers pushing a buggy with a baby, toddler at hand, and a big backpack over one shoulder; orphans with wide-open enquiring eyes; elderly people, tired, sad, or very talkative; and of course refugees from every imaginable corner of the world.

There is a special aura in such places. It’s not easy to describe. You see broken lives up close, with your own eyes, and suffering in its toughest, quiet, day-to-day reality. A heavy battle on the ground of a fogged mind, tormented soul, and aching heart. And you can also easily notice desperation that is met by hope, indifference that is faced with action, depression that is confronted by the kind deeds of those who care.

Why do those who care do what they do? There could be many reasons: to transform the world, to try to change things for the better, to fix at least some problems, maybe even to save a life, to help real people, to give back to society, to live a life of meaning. I participated in many volunteer projects in different parts of the world for years and years. What really moved me? Empathy? Faith in God? The power of doing good? A desire to be useful? Maybe a bit of everything.

Have you ever been to a place like that?

Picture a couple of all-purpose rooms with oddly matched tables and chairs. Shelves stuffed with clothes of all possible styles, sizes, and colors. Buggies and baby items carefully stored in one corner. Packages with canned food lined up by every wall in the building. Maybe a pile of boxes of medicine or hygiene supplies. Maybe an area with small tables and chairs with a few boxes of toys, bright books, and colorful stationery—a tiny kingdom for children’s activities. And of course, most importantly, the engine of any such space—people. Sometimes in bright identical branded tee-shirts or with badges to be easily recognized. These could be university students, middle-aged housewives, energetic retirees—the everyday people who make such a difference.

“Smile,” “Child’s Heart,” “Let’s Love,” “Helping Hands,” “Care in Action,” “A Heart Full of Smiles,” “Let’s Help,” “Come Before Winter,” “Beam of Hope,” “Family Mission,” “Doctor Clown.” Those are real names of existing humanitarian organizations or volunteer groups. I have been a member of some of these and an active volunteer for more than half my life, in Russia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Germany, Romania, the Philippines, Moldova, Iraq, and of course, Ukraine, because I am Ukrainian.

I participated in many projects in Ukraine. Five years in the Kharkiv region, visiting orphanages, performing puppet shows, bringing presents, involving students to volunteer with us in the mid-nineties. The early 2000s took me to the western part of the country, distributing humanitarian aid in the remote Carpathian areas. I spent two years between 2015 and 2017 participating in and directing camps for children from displaced families from the Donetsk region. More recently, before Covid, I volunteered with a team creating murals at children’s institutions, engaging high school teens to participate.

All that, even the last mural painted in December 2021, seems like a distant past. A previous life. Before the war.

My beloved, amazing, tortured, and now half-devastated land. Will I ever be able to go back? Did I ever think that one day I would be on the run for my life? Collecting all possible information about refugee status, rights, possibilities, and the limitations of temporary protected status. Trying to figure out at least some kind of semblance of a plan. Wondering how long it will take for the war to come to an end. Overcoming the stream of negative images with what sometimes feel like weak and vague prayers.

So, I walk in.

I was told that I can ask for information at this association, nestled in a simple street of the small town in Western Europe I’ve fled to. A very friendly person at the gate greets me (oh, thank You, dear God, in English!) and offers me tea or coffee (there is actually a choice, and sugar and milk if you want). He is handing me a cookie packed in a see-through plastic cover.

I’m in a little yard with simple benches filled with people of at least 15 different nationalities, waiting in line. There are some older homeless men, two poorly dressed European ladies 60+, a few young African mothers with a bunch of smiling and nonstop-on-the-go kids, a man in his thirties in a wheelchair accompanied by a woman, a group of timid Arab teen boys.

Another person with a badge takes me inside, through the corridor, to a tiny office where two tables and six chairs barely fit. A smiling middle-aged woman carefully listens to the translator, a short, shy young girl.

They offer all they have. What do I need? Food? Vegetarian? Shoes? What size? Shampoo, toothbrush? Would I like to attend language classes? What about a free haircut?

Valery, the very bubbly 52-year-old English-speaking hairdresser, takes me to the next room, which is the size of a big closet. She hugs me when I tell her that I am from Ukraine. She sits me in a simple chair, covers me with a black haircutting cape, puts a piece of sticky ribbon around my neck, and asks me what kind of hair style I would like.

And at this point I cry. What about? I am not sure anymore. A tear slowly and quietly runs down my cheek. My life will never be the same.

She keeps up a bubbly conversation, telling me a bit about her (usual, normal!) life. She prefers black coffee without sugar. She has got a grown-up son who lives in Italy. And she keeps asking about the preferred length of my hair in the back or of my bangs. She is a bookkeeper who works in the neighboring city. She volunteers here once a month.

I feel taken care of, welcomed, rested, and understood. At the end she gives me a tiny baby blue card with her contact. “Write me. Whatever you need. With any kind of questions. Or we can simply meet for coffee and a chat.”

I profoundly thank Valery, the lady that registered me and explained how I could be helped here, the volunteers in the corridor, the men at the entrance.

I walk slowly through the streets of this brand-new-to-me town. A Bible verse I memorized in my early twenties gets a new meaning: “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:40 NKJV).

With the care of kind people like these, and God’s love and protection, I will be fine.

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