Kim F. Sigurdson is an Indigenous businessman and philanthropist.
When I came to Ukraine to assist with humanitarian aid efforts, I was determined to make my way to the front lines. But one day in Irpin, a shattered city bordering Kyiv, was enough to change my mind.
I realized the suffering and sorrow I saw would have been even worse at the front lines – and that if I went there, I would never have returned the same man.
The Ukrainian government had just opened Irpin up after clearing it of corpses, body parts, booby traps and landmines left behind by the Russian army.
My “freedom fighter” driver and translator had warned me not to stray too far from the road, as there still may be undetonated munitions around. Still, I ventured a bit farther than where I was supposed to be, and I went into some homes and an apartment building – or rather, what was left them of them.
The smell of death in the air was something I will never forget. It is so strong that you think you can touch what you smell.
As we travelled through Irpin, it looked as though the people had gone through a baptism by fire. Engaging with them and witnessing their suffering had a profound effect on me.
The city reminded me of those black-and-white pictures of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb levelled it. It seemed as if the sun had gone to hell this day; everything felt grey. The only splashes of colour I could see were the well-tended gardens full of tulips and other bright flowers left behind by the people who had either died there or managed to flee in time.
Indeed, there were few people left in Irpin, and the ones I engaged with were standing in lines at food distribution centres throughout the city. The people in these lines were wearing tattered, soiled clothes and smelled like they had not bathed in weeks.
Curiously, they kept asking me when this was all going to end – especially the old babas, who are fierce, opinionated and will not take no for an answer. I imagined them wielding wooden spoons to keep order in the house. Every once in a while, though I saw a smile come to their weathered faces, and you would know then that there was still hope.
One older gentleman standing in a long line smiled at me and waved me over. He had lost his leg when he was fighting the Russians in Crimea back in 2014. He wanted the world to know the Ukrainian people would never surrender.
I asked him what he thought of Vladimir Putin’s war, and he stared me in the eye and told me: “I want to go and fight the Russians again.” It was an impossibility for him, but it was a testament to the will of the Ukrainian people.
I had travelled to Ukraine to help people and to better understand what I could provide, using the connections I had developed in Canada and the United States. I was very interested in how food, medicine, feminine hygiene products, and clothing were being distributed, and it has been amazing to see how various non-governmental organizations have helped these disenfranchised people in this time of need.
I still believe there is a place for smaller, more practical charities to play a role in helping to get humanitarian aid to communities that are not being served right now. In my experience, smaller charities are made up of grassroots people that put a bit more passion into what they do. They know the people, the culture, the language and where they are.
But what I’ve also learned in my time here is that understanding Ukrainians means walking in their moccasins. They have told me about their oppression by the Soviet Union, Poland and the Austro-Hungarian Empire over the course of hundreds of years, and it is clear that a spirit of resilience persists.
That’s especially true because they have experienced freedom since 1990 – and they’ll be damned if they’ll let some Russian tyrant named Putin take it away from them.
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