If We Were Refugees



More than 2.8 million Ukrainians, mainly women and children, fled in the first two weeks of warfare.

Could I be ready that fast?

Andrew would have to stay; he is not yet sixty. I would throw away a lifetime of pacifism and learn to shoot, so I could stay, too, but he would shoo me so angrily, I would go. With a friend? That would be cheerful, but the logistics of war do not honor social bonds. Odds are, I would be traveling alone to—where? Mexico, who should hate us? Canada suits me better—I love the cold and peace—but Canada would never be able to absorb us all, and why should they?

Some of the Ukrainians fled to other parts of their own country. Keep going, I urged them mentally. You are not safe yet.

But where is safe?

Tom Petty’s song drums in my head: “You don’t have to live like a refugee.” But millions of people do. What does it mean, to live like a refugee? It means to rely, like Blanche Dubois, on the kindness of strangers. To leave nearly everyone and everything you love and walk the earth unprotected, unencumbered, untethered. To suddenly have no home, and therefore, no place you can totally let go. No ease.

I look around at this old, happy house, feel its sturdy wood floors beneath my toes. Throw myself across the familiar bed and stare at the ceiling fan, deciding what I would bring. I could not carry much. Even the squat little rolling suitcase would be awkward and exhausting, bumping along behind me as we walked miles on rough road. I would bring it anyway.

Mentally, I travel from room to room, increasingly frantic. Luck makes this only a pretend exercise, but there is a hint of real panic as I wonder what to grab. All over the house, I have extended my self into tools and devices and objects coated in memory.

So had 2.8 million Ukrainians. And all the millions of people before them who have been forced from their home, that sacrosanct place, by weapons held in strangers’ hands.

How did they choose, practically or sentimentally? Checklists suggest what to bring with you when floodwater rises, but this is harder: you are packing for a longer journey, and you do not know where you will end up, or for how long, because wherever you land is not likely to remain welcoming. Seeking refuge is not about stashing boxes up in the attic so you can return as soon as the water recedes. Seeking refuge is about kissing the mezuzah one last time, shoving the family jewels into the toe of a sock, and praying that someday you can return, and there is something to return to.

I would bring the dog, of course. But wait—would that even be possible? I squint at the photos and see only a few pups, and maybe they are only traveling to relatives in another part of Ukraine. I guess the dog would have to stay at home with Andrew. And if Andrew is off fighting, will Willie starve to death? I think of his usual day—the two-mile walk, the dog park, the relished breakfast, the succession of treats, the quiet cuddles—the safe happy life everyone on this planet should have and few do. Then I try to imagine how he will cope, and I cannot be sure; he is smart, alert, resilient—and spoiled. A lot like us.

But luck changes. So what would I grab? Frivolously, the stupid Invisalign retainer, because I am damned if I will let my teeth go crooked for a second time. Plenty of underwear. Fleece and flannel for comfort—but not much, because those clothes are bulky. A bright red lipstick to dare the world to break me. Passport and credit cards—or would they be too easily stolen? Cash would be, too. No wonder women pinned it to their petticoats, back when they wore them.

I need something of my mother’s with me, something she touched. A few favorite old photos. If I thought I could lug it, the Riverside Shakespeare, which is more bible for me than a real bible. Technology will at least bring up the plays and sonnets.

I can hear myself already, years from now, saying softly to someone I have not yet met, “I once had….” and describing a pretty dress or unusual object. Trying to remember each room. Should I photograph them, or would that just keep the pain fresh?

As a refugee, I would abruptly be reduced to a body, rather than an inhabited life. I try to focus on bodily things, the tiny pharmacy of comforts, tablets and ointments and unguents in our medicine cabinet. No room. No room for my heating pad, either, but I would miss it when my back ached at night. Ah, well. Pack the antihistamines and Alleve and call it good.

I start a new list, this time of all that we would lose. Our books, which mark our minds’ growth like pencil marks on a doorjamb. Andrew’s flag collection, spanning the globe and the centuries. Old family photos that hang on the wall undigitized. Albums stuffed with travel, dogs, friends, childhood. My watercolors, my mom’s Steuben stemware, the best frying pan I ever had. Tax documents, appliance manuals, gardening tools, Chopin and Bach lp’s, Andrew’s great-grandmother’s rocker, all those Christmas tree ornaments we stop to hold, faces softening with memories, before we hang them on a branch. All those comfortable shoes I paid too much for because at least they were not ugly. The climbing roses I bled for, the soft frothy ferns and daffodils and daisies.

A house crammed with stuff, and how little of it I need to survive.

What would I keep next to me at all times? My wedding ring and my iPhone. We could Skype, wherever I wound up. And then a day would go by with no answer and would that mean my husband was dead? How would I even find out? The Russian mothers called the Ukrainians to check on their loved ones. It stops my heart. I imagine googling for an embassy, getting passed from one person to the next or, more likely, stuck in an automated loop, asking again and again for word of this man they never met who is half my life.

If I could find enough paper, I could play journalist to distract myself, write down the wrenching bits of conversation I overheard, the children’s puzzled questions, the old people shaking and in pain but telling their stories, the pregnant women trying to soothe their unborn child. Maybe I could document the scams and false hope and bureaucratic idiocy. But at some point, I would give up, because it would begin to feel pointless. There would be so many of us that people would cease to care if we lived or died. We would fast overstay our welcome, and when we kept needing food and water and medicine and a place to sleep, we would be seen as a danger to our hosts’ comfort, and once again, we would get kicked out of safety.

When you have a home, you can hide inside. You can cry and scream in privacy, then sleep and heal. You have an address. The world can locate you on a map. Packages come to you. Your existence can be verified. Yes, I am who I say I am. See? I live here, in this town, and know these people, and own this house. I am rooted. The winds cannot sweep me easily to a new place.

Ah, but war can. Enough bombs explode, and that fast, you are no one, just another person in a long tired line with nothing to cling to, save hope and the chance of kindness prevailing.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.