Over the last few days, I have been fighting the war in my head. Figuring out what and how to verbalize. At first, I was outraged, then I was sad, now I am more in a state of uncertainty that goes neither here nor there. There is a war going on, with real outcomes and real people. In a globalized world, I seek to take action without really knowing that it really matters. In the shock, I seem to forget my own lesson that A Little Gesture matters. I don’t want to shut it down, and I also don’t want it to overwhelm as the children look at our frantic reading of the news with inquisitive eyes.
From outrage to sadness
My outrage at the invasion was quickly replaced by the notion that no-one would stand-up for Ukraine. As a big believer in the European project, a project that was created to avoid a world war to ever happen again (or at least an European war). I got sad. And no matter all the economic arguments that I knew held true, I did not want to understand them, I did not even want to hear them. I started blocking news. I told Hubby B he was not allowed to rationalize with me anymore. All I was really after was empathy.
Verbalizing the inexplicable
A few days into the war, and as we sought different news about sanctions and responses over the weekend, I had to stop Little Girl C’s from interrupting a few times. When I finished reading, she asked:
Why is everyone talking about Russia
I knew that moment had come, and I had read a few articles about how to tell children about the war. But are you ever really prepared? Hubby B stared at me in that here-we-go-moment as I took a deep breath. I really wanted to explain it in a way that I was doing a small bit to fight these and any future wars.
What you can explain
I matter-of-fact explained Russia had invaded Ukraine and was advancing troops to take over the country. There were bombs and guns. She seemed to understand the concept, even if not the consequences. But she went exactly where I expected – why?
Removing all outrage from my expression (I think), I explained that Putin likely had his reasons, but most of us did not really understand or agree with them. And that no matter the reasons, Ukraine was still a country with sovereignty and he barged in.
The 2 sides
You can imagine what comes next. The Russians. That is when I explained not all Russians knew about this or even supported this. That these were the actions of a group of people and we couldn’t possibly just hate the Russians. In fact, I told her about my Russian friend from business school who was born in Russia and was so saddened by all this and how her family was half Russian and half Ukrainian. About Daddy’s friend who lived in Moscow and was in shock at the news. Having real people on the “other” side that I could point to was very helpful in her understanding that in practice, there were not only the good ones and the bad ones. Even if we spend our day kind of speaking in that way…
The upstanders (or lack thereof)
The last part I shared with her was that I was sad that no-one was standing up for Ukraine. In the weekend, not much had come out, and the rationality of economic arguments was still daunting. I feared there would be no intervention, and if it would come, it would be too little, too late. I could not come to explain to her why we were being slow to defend Ukraine. I don’t think I could explain it to myself at the time really. But I could give her a closer to home example (sorry history). If Spain were to invade Portugal and no-one would come to our rescue, how would we feel?
I was proud of her answer. I may not know how to fight this war, but at least I am trying not to create more wars.
What I did not say
Let’s face it, there is so much I did not say. She is 8 years old after all.
I did not go into the reasons for this war. Some of them go so far back in the past that I don’t think a child can truly grasp why we would be fighting a war today on the basis of what happened 50 years ago. NATO, European Union, the former views we had on Ukraine’s president-now-hero, the strong views we have on Russia’s president. The truth is, that matters little to her and is so convoluted (and full of my own judgement) that I steered away from it as much as I could. If I am wrong, I appreciate anyone giving me a child-like way to explain.
I did not explain the stories of broken families. The ones that made it to the border and the ones that did not. And the fathers that said goodbye to their daughters and wives. The people hiding in underground shelters. Or the ones that did not even get a goodbye. What bombs and guns actually mean in real life and outside the movies. I was probably blessed that she does not see any war movies and the effects of this war are probably a bit distant to her. Do I want her to know? To a certain extent, I do want her to know how bad a war can be, and is being, in people’s lives. But I certainly did not want to start with the pictures.
Luckily, she has not heard much of WW2 yet. Therefore, she has not asked about WW3. I am not sure I would have an answer. After I just told her I am sad we are not intervening, I also know the consequence of intervention is more likely to lead to WW3. So I know I am threading dangerous ground and I don’t know how to go about it. And as a parent, it is ok not to know. That was the only answer I had ready for her.
“I don’t know what is going to happen”
The one thing I know how to do well is to take action. After the initial blockage of “OMG there is a war in Europe”, I slowly started figuring out the very small things I could and want to do, besides trying to avoid hate speech and flooding my children with images of war.
I have now finally started figuring out the people in my network that are in some way connected to this war. If you are in my network and I did not reach out, it is not because I do not care, it is because my brain has not connected all the wires yet. On either side, reaching out may seem like a nothing but in fact most of the people I reached out to have appreciated it. I am not giving myself any awards of goodness for it. Rather recognising that it is such a small thing we can do, to go out of our way and actually offer a word of kindness. And kindness always goes a long way.
A war in the age of the globalization and social media means we can more easily see what is going on, and we can also more easily unite. In fact, the rallies for support started earlier than probably most government sanctions. The people wanted to do something. As I looked at where I could better apply a contribution, I was pleased to find out my employer launched a donation and matching fund for the International Rescue Committee. I love matching as it is a highly effective way to provide help, really increasing the impact of my donation. And as a UK taxpayer, Giftaid gave an extra push. While it was only the beginning, I felt at least I got the machine in motion.
If you are wondering if I am now fundraising for Ukraine rather than Mozambique, I am not. We are very much still trying to solve the structural problems we face in Mozambique, getting children in school, feeding them, keeping them healthy. Whilst the war there may have finished 30 years ago, there is much to be done.
However, even though there is a foundation cause to my heart, I do continue to support other causes that are close to home or close to a friend’s heart. In this case, it is the people of Ukraine. I say it because many people feel like “they already give to X” and therefore they don’t give to an emergency Y. One thing hopefully does not exclude the other. So if you see me rallying support for Portugal Unido Pela Ucrania on the internet, I have not changed my colours. I just have lots of colours.
Teach through giving
When we go back to Lisbon, I am hoping to bring the kids to a collection center so we can give physical goods and they understand what a war can cause. Lack of rice, lack of cereal, lack of socks, lack of bed sheets. Whilst I am not brave enough to show the children pictures of the war (or pictures of real starvation in Mozambique), I have always shown then how Little Gestures can truly help and make a difference to each person. And how we are fortunate that we can go to a supermarket and buy so many of these things. Maybe that way they will understand a war is not just something we read about in the news and will one day when older also be compelled to action.
An unimaginable war
I have no particular expertise in talking about this war. Or any other war for that matter. Because I struggle to understand and put myself on the offender’s shoes, Or even in the victim’s. I struggle to explain without judgement. It is not meant to offend by omission of what I am not saying. It is not meant to lecture about what I am doing. It is meant to be my very tiny word about something I don’t think can go forgotten in our history. I could not leave this war unspoken.
Photo by Tina Hartung @ Unsplash