My heart is in Ukraine

Janice Harbaugh is a retired counselor and teacher, a fifth generation Iowan and fifth generation Greene Countian. She writes for Greene County News Online covering county government and writing occasional features.

My heart is in Ukraine.

In 1999, my husband and I met a foreign exchange student sponsored by a program in Jasper County. Alona was from a village in Ukraine and she lived with us on our acreage near Mitchellville for several months.

We learned about the history of eastern Europe, the conditions in Ukraine, her family, and her hopes for the future as we traveled around Iowa, showing her our history and treasures. She told us people in Ukraine know Iowa because of agricultural exchanges.

We would visit family in Greene County and I told her this is some of the richest soil in the world. Alona would tease me that soil in Ukraine is “deeper and a little blacker.”  

She had been a young child when the Soviet Union had dissolved in 1991 and Ukraine became a democracy. She remembered her father had lost his good job under the previously state-run businesses. Russia had tried to interfere in the economy for years afterward as Ukraine was struggling to understand the new way of government and establish itself as a democracy.

Alona described the Ukrainian economy in the 1990s as being based on barter as well as money. People set up little stores in the cities similar to our yard sales. There were underground markets and a robust criminal network competing with the new democratic government for control. If families were not financially able to send children to high school or support older children, the teens lived on the streets.

It was very hard for us to send Alona back to Ukraine at the end of her exchange visit. In a leap of faith and a vote for capitalism, we gave her an American credit card and she could use it at a bank to get enough money each month to finish high school. Then, because higher education was a small fraction of the cost it is here, we were able to help her go to college. She finished one degree in business and another in banking.

But before she started college in the fall of 2001, Alona came back to us for a month. We went to Yellowstone and toured Colorado. On the way home, we stayed the night in Nebraska. On the morning of September 11, she knocked on the door, telling us to turn on the television.

The next days after 9-11, Alona saw democracy in action. All the governmental actions, speeches, television reports, grief. She was not able to fly home because flights were grounded. Her parents called from Ukraine, frantic until she calmed them down.

When flights were resumed, we drove to O’Hare airport in Chicago to send her home. The security was intense. At first, we weren’t allowed to wait with her for the flight to Poland, but she spoke in Ukrainian to officials and, with identification, we were then allowed to stand with her among Polish people waiting to go home. They were all exhausted and disheveled, many having waited for days for a flight back to Warsaw. We were not looking very good, either.

She had told us not to speak English as we went toward the Polish airline. She said, “Mom, just fit in!”

I later forgot and I said something to her. Immediately, the Polish people turned to look at me, knowing I was American. They looked at me with sadness.

I couldn’t communicate, but I started to cry because Alona was going home and we’d just been through an attack on the United States.

People in the group started to cry, too, and we nodded at each other and smiled until the plane boarded.

Alona started college late, but she was asked to talk about her experiences in the United States in her college classes.

We have stayed in touch with Alona through the years. When international texting apps began, we texted and sent photos. When my niece was working at an Army base in Germany in 2019, she spent a long weekend with Alona and her family. It was one of the best experiences of her life to see the Alona she had known briefly as a child and to tour Kyiv with the family.

Alona landed an excellent position in banking, married, had a daughter who is now a teenager. Over the years, democracy has become stronger and the Ukrainian economy has grown and become more stable. Alona and her husband moved to Kyiv and have operated a small restaurant supply business for several years. They just welcomed a baby boy in October.

I texted Alona when I heard of the Russian invasion. She texted back, “It is hard times for Ukraine. Soldiers are in Kyiv. Explosions around the country. Airports disrupted. Our whole family moved to village because it is not good for baby in shelters in city at night. We pray for peace and hope it will stop soon.”

I texted that we are hearing what the Russians are doing and that many families there are trying to get to Poland. I told her we will keep trying if we do lose text communication.

The next day, Alona replied she would do her best to stay in touch. She said she and her husband had decided not to go to Poland because only she and the children would be allowed across the border. Her husband must stay to fight.

The last text I received from Alona was “Could you share the information please because news from Europe won’t tell it all.”

I think Alona meant to share it with family, but I want to share it with more people.

I texted back that I would share and we are hearing about terrible conditions and the bravery of Ukrainians defending their country. I said President Zelenskyy is staying in Kyiv to defend it. I said the United States and the world is with Ukraine.

There was silence for two days. Then I received a text from Alona saying they were in the countryside, helping to feed Ukrainian soldiers and volunteering in various ways to help people leaving the country.

My heart is in Ukraine.

Top photo of Janice Harbaugh provided by the author and published with permission.

About the Author(s)

Janice Harbaugh

  • Thank you

    Thank you for sharing your story. Please update as you hear more from Alona. May Ukraine emerge better and stronger from this ordeal.