Help Lyubov Sirota--Ukrainian poet, Chernobyl survivor, Crimean refugee--rebuild her life and secure a home.
This fund raiser was started on April 1, 2014 in order to raise funds to help Lyubov Sirota buy a house by April 26, the anniversary of her first evacuation from Pripyat. (Her story is below). Now, with over a third of the funds raised, the house has been renovated enough to be livable and secured with a down payment, and Lyubov has moved in, but I am going to leave the fund open so that those who read her poetry, and want to support her, will still have a place where they can donate towards the purchase of the house, hear about how she is doing, or just leave her a hug (by clicking the "Support" button above and then clicking past Facebook, you can post words of support, which are truly appreciated).
In April 1986, the poet Lyubov Sirota was happily directing children’s art programs in Pripyat, the thriving city of more than 50,000 people located less than 2 km from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Then, on the night of April 26, catastrophe happened: the nuclear plant caught fire. Lyubov and her young son Alex (nickname: Sasha) were loaded onto buses along with the thousands of other evacuees. They had left everything behind. This March, she found herself a refugee once again after fleeing the violence she was witnessing in Crimea, leaving behind her apartment and belongings, the tangible form of all her savings. She and her husband arrived at the train station in Kyiv with nothing but one laptop and their cat.
When I heard about this situation, I stepped in, creating this fund. So perhaps I should pause here and explain my own connection with her. I am an Associate Professor in the English Department of the University of Dallas. On March 21, 2003, I wrote Lyubov an email out of the blue after reading her Chernobyl poems on Paul Brians’ web site. For eleven years now, I have not only corresponded with her regularly, but also worked extensively with her on English translations of her poems and essay, “Excessive Burden,” which chronicles the agonies of the women of “Chernobyl,” and the heartbreaking illnesses of their children. I hope to write a book about her. It is an astonishing experience to read her expressions of unspeakable pain and unimaginable heartbreak despite a spirit that remains indomitable in its love, steadfast against bitterness. Indeed, “Lyubov” means “love” both in Ukrainian and Russian, and it is what her poetry exhorts us over and over:
Do not kill an angel in yourself.
Do not cut, do not break the wings.
Do not believe in greedy predictions
promising you earthly abundance.
For though his look is sometimes hard and bitter
as you step along the cruel path -
only he can grant you love.
Let me continue, then, relaying Lyubov's story. In 1986, after being re-located along with the other Pripyal survivors to Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, Lyubov began the slow process of adjusting to displacement, poverty and health problems. She met fellow poet, translator, and literary editor, Victor Grabovsky, and, despite her chronic ill-heath from radiation exposure, she flourished in her creative work, writing poetry and essays, and co-authoring Rollan Sergienko’s Chernobyl film, Threshold. Largely through the efforts of Professor Paul Brians of Washington State University (better known to American readers as the author of Common Errors in English Usage), her work gained exposure, was translated and anthologized internationally.
Victor, too, continued in his own work, producing volumes of essays, poetry, translation, and two novels, receiving the Oheinko Prize in 2012 for distinguished contribution to Ukrainian letters, which recognized, among other achievements, his book on the little known poems and prayers of Karol Józef Wojtyła.
Then last spring, Lyubov and Victor, who has now retired, decided that they would sell their small apartment in Kyiv in order to make it possible for Alex at last to buy a small cabin in a district near Pripyat. They would use the remaining money to buy an even smaller apartment in Gaspra, in Crimea. They had vacationed in Crimea some summers past, and now it was the place they thought they might live. The move was difficult, but she was happy. She wrote me: “Of course, there are still many unsolved problems but, thanks God, all difficulties and problems already have gone to the second line. In addition, all difficulties are solved much more easily against the background of the amazing sea every morning and wonderful, fabulous nature. So we're looking forward to new creative Crimean period of our lives. My Kyiv friend Lena said, ‘You didn’t buy an apartment, but health and life!’ (Wait and see!)...” (7/14/13).
Five months later, what they saw, from afar, was EuroMaidan.
Protestors took to the streets in Kyiv’s Maidan Square to protest the Victor Yanukovich’s abandoning an agreement that Ukraine would seek closer ties with the European Union. Watching it live-streamed on the internet, Lyubov was enthusiastic about the protest, which she viewed as being about much more than economics, but rather about freedom itself. She wrote me later that: “Many priests of different Christian denominations offered services and prayers on the Maidan stage (almost every hour) and even leaders of other religions were there often together (including Muslims and Jews!) – it was one of the amazing spiritual features of the Maidan... Prayer in common is a weapon which evil fears!..” On December 13, she wrote: “Unfortunately, we with Victor are far from EuroMaidan, like you, and we can only pray for our victory, victory of Love and Peace in our dear Ukraine!”
We lost touch through most of January and, by the beginning of February, the situation became more tense. She wrote on January 24, “Forgive me, my dear, that I failed to respond to you immediately, because now we have a terrible and emotional stress days in Ukraine.”
On February 18, events in the Maidan took a violent turn: government snipers began shooting at peaceful protesters, and in the next four days, over 100 protesters were shot. On February 25, the specter of violence turned its attention – to Crimea. I received an email from Lyuba that day: “In this time I can't write you, so sorry! But I'll try to write you soon. Now I only can to say that situation here in Crimea is very disturbing and dangerous. Please pray for us!”
On February 28, after Russian troops finally formally invaded Crimea and I lost touch with Lyubov. Internet connections and television stations had been severed. Of course, I was frantic, and I hunted through old emails to see if I could find an email contact for Sasha, which I did. He replied on March 1 that his mother and Victor were going to attempt to leave by train. On March 3, Lyubov wrote me that they had made it back to Kyiv, and then to Sasha’s little cabin:
“Thanks God and Sasha today in morning we with Victor and Radyasya [their cat] arrived … The way was so hard, therefore now I can’t write you more. I’ll try to do it tomorrow…”
In the days that followed, I heard about the military men who harassed citizens, about armed men coming to her apartment building in the middle of the night, about her fear that she would be next.
Yet she managed to look on the bright side: “We were fortunate that we were able to leave the Crimea before the searches started on station platforms and in trains. For two days after we left, they have broken computers and similar equipment of people. And this is what I feared most, because in addition to documents and some other necessary things that we naturally took with us, we took the most important thing: our laptop, with all our creative works and our archive! So, thanks to God and Sasha we managed to leave Crimea in time... However, now again, as after the evacuation of Pripyat, I'm again without shelter and livelihood... But then I was young, healthy and still full of energy... And now I and Victor have neither one nor the other, nor the third. Of course, I understand that, that it’s all temporary difficulty, that life somehow will get arranged...”
So now, twenty-eight years after being evacuated from Pripyat, Lyubov Sirota was homeless again, and back on the border of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. She could not go back to Crimea; she had lost her savings, for she and Victor still do not know what will become, what has become, of their little apartment in occupied Crimea; their son’s two-room cabin was not big enough to accommodate his wife and child, and his parents, too.
But there was hope. Sasha found an old house in the town of Ivankiv, not far from his cabin. It was very dilapidated and needed much renovation, but with the funds raised from this site, by April 26, they were able to secure enought for a down payment and, with volunteer help, began the process of fixing it up to be a real house, a home, for Lyubov and Victor.
And so this fund raiser made possible a dream: that the heart-breaking anniversary of April 26 would also be an anniversary of hope! Of course, they still need to buy the rest of the house, which is not easy on a Ukrainian fixed income (they are both retired and have health problems) and their son can also offer very limited financial help (freelance photographers in Ukraine do not make much, and he has devoted his life to preserving the memory of his childhood home, the dead city of Pripyat, and the disaster that caused it -- see Pripyat.com, his web site). But all of us together can still offer support, now no longer a matter of life and death, but rather in support of Lyubov, her poetry, and the vision that it expresses and embodies. So I am leaving this fund open, as a way of supporting Lyubov and her poetry in the form of buying her this house: a home of Poetry, a home of Peace.
I recently re-read a poem of hers that I helped translate in 2010:
"For My Son"
I build the house from dewdrops,
I weave walls from fragrant grass …
I build the house, for us together, my son,
from clouds desperately billowing…
From forest scents I weave a carpet,
and a birdsong – slate for a roof!
Let our house sing, laugh, cry, breathe and rejoice –
to be in such an open space!
I build the house on four winds, near four roads
that all messages may fly to us.
So that sorrow, pain and fear
are ground into the roadside dust…
I build the house from dewdrops
and a light refracted by a smile…
I build the house on very unsteady ground, –
Forgive me this impracticality,
Thank you for imbuing this poem now with hope beyond the bitter irony it carried three months ago. Thank you for supporting a force of love (little did her parents know how well they named her!) and faith against all odds. And thank you for supporting the voice of freedom and poetry in a hostile world--its spirit was never more needful ... in Ukraine, and everywhere.