Several years ago I had the opportunity to travel through Crimea, the exact region in Ukraine that, as of today, has been taken over by Russian troops. I was leading economic development workshops on building a sustainable tourism industry in underdeveloped Tatar communities.
This was only 12 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain and people were still coming to terms with what freedom and Democracy actually mean. They were still learning that they could protest their living conditions, for instance.
On one evening, sitting in the garden of a family home, we laughed about the neighbor who had marched into city hall and demanded that local authorities stop turning off the municipal water supply without notice. The people were amazed and shocked to learn they could take this kind of “risk” – that they could ask for what they wanted without fear of punishment, and that it could actually work. This was reason to celebrate, and so we did.
Over the weeks, I stayed in the homes of four or five families, meeting their children, eating delicious food and touring historic sites. I especially remember an evening at the home of Bahatgul, a beautiful, yoga-practicing young mother of a karate champion son and a deaf daughter. She runs a bed and breakfast inn that she and her husband have literally built from scratch, brick by brick. Bahatgul has a lovely voice, and at one point she picked up her guitar and began singing about Bakhchiseray, her home town. The poignancy of the moment left us all in tears. She cared about her home so deeply, appreciating the beauty and history of the place, and her connection to it, at a level most will never know. I fell in love with the place, too.
Overall, the world looked pretty rosy and filled with opportunity then. But after decades of Soviet repression, Ukrainians were still grappling with new and sometimes conflicting ideas. For instance, they wondered how they could form an alliance like a tourism bureau, (which sounded suspiciously like a Communist collective to them), while still maintaining their new found individuality. Their desire for visitors was way ahead of the available infrastructure, too. But they were passionate and determined, and they wanted real feedback on what Western travelers would think of their restaurants, hotels and attractions.
For me, the experience was powerful, not least because of my translator Asan, who was just 19 at the time. Age didn’t matter, though. I began to call him “Dad” because he literally took care of everything, even going with me to the glass-windowed office of the public toilet, to help me place my toilet paper order. (Its amazing what you take for granted as an American!)
At Simferopol Airport, our goodbyes were tearful and when I passed through the turnstile, he stopped me. Shyly, he wrote the word “God” in my palm using a ball-point pen. He said it was to keep me safe on my flight. I tried not to wash that hand for days, but the ink eventually faded.
I often think about Asan and Bahatgul and Nadiman and Irena and Dilyara and Renart and the guy from the American embassy who took me out for Italian food in Kiev. Asan and I continue to stay in touch through letters and social media, making jokes, discussing philosophy, checking on each other during natural disasters and chronicling our spiritual journeys. And of course, Asan has been through a series of protests and political upheavals in his country, always coming out feeling that things will soon get better. So far, that’s been his experience.
Today I saw photographs of Russian tanks on the roads not too far from Bahatgul’s inn and soldiers in front of the airport where I last saw Asan. Tonight, my heart is with the people of Crimea. I hope everyone involved – and everyone who hears in passing that something is happening on the other side of the globe – remembers that the news is about real people, with real hopes and dreams, with businesses and families, with new brides and new babies, with jobs, homes, pets, grandmothers, gardens…
Please. Please don’t forget about the people of Crimea and Ukraine…