Ukraine’s Refugees: Still There

Civilians murdered. Soldiers killed. Buildings bombed. It’s all still happening in Ukraine, even as we Americans let our attention drift to newer problems.

Those millions of Ukrainians who fled their homes? More than 90,000 of them remain in neighboring Moldova.

Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) from Moldova have been working hard to help them. Since the war began in February, the Friends of Moldova group has served 60,000 Ukrainians, supported 175 other relief efforts in Moldova and raised nearly $700,000. All of the RPCVs work as volunteers; several have returned to Moldova to provide direct assistance.

This past week, the Friends of Moldova, in concert with a Moldovan Rotary club, received a $25,000 Rotary Foundation Disaster Response Grant to buy food and other resources for refugees in northern Moldova.

North Carolina’s Rotary District 7710 initiated the grant after I described the urgency of the situation in a talk at the Rotary Club of Raleigh. Kim Dixon, who served with the Peace Corps in Georgia, and I developed the grant with her Rotary colleagues.

Friends of Moldova President Bartosz Gawarecki and other RPCVs also worked on the grant, which Bartosz will now oversee in Bălți. He lived there as a volunteer, leading a recycling initiative and youth sports programs, and returned recently from his Michigan home to establish a refugee assistance center for the region. That’s him on the left in the photo below.

Rotarians in Oklahoma City have been pursuing a similar collaboration with Moldova, inspired by another RPCV, Kelsey Walters, who married and remained in Moldova but returned to Oklahoma with her children recently after hearing explosions across the border. The two districts joined in a conference call hosted by N.C. Sec. of State Elaine Marshall, who oversees the state’s long-standing formal partnership with Moldova. We discussed how to expand these efforts and encourage other Rotary districts around the country to pursue similar grants. 

That’s where you come in, readers.

First and foremost: Please continue to donate online to the Friends of Moldova. Your support has enabled the organization to transport refugees from a freezing border, feed children and provide hope to families.

Now you can make an even bigger impact by working with a Rotary group in your area to pursue one of these grants. The Friends of Moldova cannot do this centrally; it needs supporters across the country to initiate grants locally. If you’re willing to help, please contact me directly and we’ll guide you through the process, which isn’t complicated. If you are a Rotarian or served with the Peace Corps in Moldova, that’s great, but it isn’t necessary. (I’m not a Rotarian myself.)

I wish I didn’t need to keep writing about this but, as you’ve seen on television, Russia’s aggression has been bloody and relentless. Ukrainians keep dying. Millions of innocent families remain dislocated, overwhelming their generous hosts across the border. As Americans, we can feel anger, outrage or despair about all of this, but I hope you will join the Friends of Moldova in providing something more useful: help.

[Top photo: RPCV Clary Estes, Ukraine Stories. Other photos: Friends of Moldova]

Traveling Again

We just returned from a trip to Wilmington, N.C. And from the Georgia coast. And from Philadelphia, San Francisco and the Maryland shore.

After more than two years of a pandemic and my six months of cancer treatment, we’ve begun traveling again regularly. I’d been busy working with several nonprofit groups, and Champa with her art and gardening, but we missed the road.

We began with a drive south to the Golden Isles in Georgia, staying near the St. Simons lighthouse and exploring sights such as this driftwood beach on neighboring Jekyll Island. On the way home, we stopped in two of our favorite cities, Savannah and Charleston.

In Philadelphia, we visited with our son and his family and survived several boxing matches on his new virtual reality system.

In the San Francisco Bay area, we visited family and friends, then headed north to visit a winery and hike through beautiful places such as this redwood forest and Sonoma Coast State Park.

At the Maryland shore, we stayed at a condo in Ocean City, together with our Philadelphia family, and visited in nearby Onancock, Va., with our friend Andrea, who served with us in Peace Corps Moldova.

Most recently, we hung out in Wilmington with two long-time friends. They’re less than three hours from Durham but, like so many others, felt much further away during the pandemic.

What’s next? We’re planning a driving trip to Chicago, with several stops along the way, and an Alaskan adventure. After that, we hope to start venturing abroad again.

We know it’s a privilege to pursue our travel passion but we’ve been reminded over the past two years how unpredictable life is. We want to embrace it while we can. As I wrote near the end of our Peace Corps service in 2018, and feel even more strongly now, “I expect to remain ‘not exactly retired’ after 65 but don’t really know what will happen next. I am eager to be surprised anew.”

Hot Flashes for Men

Hot flashes are more than a nuisance or a cause for joking about “hot women.” They’re real and not especially funny — and they can happen to men, too, as I describe in this article for NextAvenue, the PBS website for older Americans.

The article continues here (www.nextavenue.org/hot-flashes-arent-just-for-women).

The Fragility of Life

Two weeks ago I posted a message on Facebook about successfully completing six months of radiation and hormone treatment for prostate cancer, something I hadn’t shared widely before then.

The response overwhelmed me. I received hundreds of upbeat comments, “likes” and other encouragement, all of which filled my heart. But there were also messages from friends around the country who shared their own cancer stories.

One former work colleague told me about his experience, as did a relative and others. That was just for prostate cancer.

A college friend wrote to tell me how he’s gone through three operations for bladder cancer.  Another friend, who grew up near me, told me he’s been battling a similar cancer for nearly a year.

Another long-time friend wrote to say he’s been dealing with multiple myeloma.

Still another friend said she and her husband are both cancer survivors.

The toughest messages and stories have come from friends far younger than me. One is now fighting brain cancer. Even younger is a former Duke student who has gone through a “nightmare” battle with breast cancer, which appears to have turned out well. 

“Cancer is scary!” she wrote me.

I’d known that intellectually. As a science writer, I’d written about oncogenes, signal transduction pathways and other aspects of cancer. But my knowledge was largely abstract, except when loved ones were affected.

Getting cancer myself, even a treatable kind with a high survival rate, has made it far more personal. It’s been like when Champa and I were expecting our first child and I began noticing all of the pregnant women around me. They’d always been there. I just hadn’t paid much attention to them. Foolish me.

My younger friend who battled breast cancer closed her last message by saying, “Let our new perspective be a source of strength.” Yes, and of compassion, too. Our lives are fragile. Even the happiest day can turn grim in a moment, with a doctor’s frown, a baby’s cry or a car’s skid. We interact daily with people facing “scary,” regardless of whether we recognize their situation or have joined them yet ourselves.

Payoff for the Heart

When Money interviewed me recently for its retirement newsletter about serving as an older Peace Corps Volunteer, one of the topics was, no surprise, money.

I told the editor that the Peace Corps is “definitely not a luxurious way to launch a retirement. It’s challenging, and you need to join for the right reasons. The main payoff is how it fills your heart. But it’s also a pretty good deal financially as a retirement transition from a regular paycheck.”

Was I on the money? You can read the full interview below.

The “Retire with Money” newsletter is free and available online.

What My Friends Are Seeing

What’s the latest in Moldova?

Many of you have been asking me that since Ukrainian refugees began flowing across the border in late February. More than 350,000 have entered Moldova and about 100,000 remain in this small country of less than 3 million people,. 

In my last post, I described how my former neighbors in Ialoveni, near Moldova’s capital, have welcomed the refugees generously. A New York Times video, PBS video and USA Today article tell similar stories about Moldovans nationwide.

In this post, I want to share some of what I’ve been hearing from American friends who are close to the situation, especially former Peace Corps Volunteers who (like me) retain a deep affection for Moldova.

Haley Bader, who served in my group and is now back in Comrat as a journalist, reported recently that “exhausted women, children, elderly men and people with medical issues or disabilities are bleeding across Moldova’s borders daily. From the north to the south, authorities are setting up tents and converting old boarding schools, exhibition centres and kindergartens to house those who are fleeing.”

Moldovans worry whether Putin may invade their country next, although that danger may have eased as Russian forces bog down in Ukraine. What is clear is that the refugees have come in large numbers, and the Moldovans have embraced them. My former host sister has gone to a train station in Bucharest, where she now lives, to invite young Ukrainian women to rest at her apartment.

We visited Chris Flowers at his post in Criuleni while we were all serving as Peace Corps Volunteers. That’s him in the middle.

“I’m seeing lots of cars with Ukrainian license plates on the streets of Chişinǎu,” says our friend Chris Flowers, another former PCV who now directs American Councils Moldova. “This is putting a strain on resources and infrastructure in the country. Despite how generous everyone is now, this level cannot be maintained and outside assistance will be needed.”

Former PCV David Smith agrees. “The Moldovan government has heroically responded with its limited resources and without any past experience dealing with a humanitarian crisis of this size,” he writes in his excellent newsletter. The response has been “amazing, inspiring and necessary” but is unsustainable. 

David Smith met with Moldovan President Maia Sandu, who came to his restaurant to support its refugee assistance efforts.

David has converted his Chişinǎu restaurant (which I featured in this article) into a center offering free food, clothing and other resources. Local volunteers assist the effort, including Peace Corps staff coordinated by Hannah Gardi. Lines stretch out the door. (Here’s a video clip of the line this morning.) Their work is admirable but, as David concluded in his last post, “Where is the cavalry?” 

Carol Spahn, acting director of the Peace Corps, left, traveled to Moldova to support local staff. She prepared meals with my former Romanian language teacher, Diana Prodan.

A friend on the Peace Corps staff wrote me to say: ““It is insane what is happening. We just don’t know where to direct all these refugees for help. The rollout of international help is very slow and disjointed.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with President Sandu and other Moldovan leaders.

The American Embassy in Moldova recently announced plans to provide assistance, as have other governments and international organizations. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other Western leaders have visited to show support. Chişinǎu’s convention center, where Champa and I attended a Moldovan friend’s fashion show, is now filled with refugee families.

Israel Collier is the co-founder of A.C.O.P.E.R.I.

Former PCV Israel Collier heads a nonprofit organization that assists Romani families and immigrants in Moldova. “This war has underscored the need for our service” she wrote me. “We’ve assisted at least 100 Ukrainian families (including many Romani families often rejected at placement centres). They specifically reach out to us because of our mission. We are currently delivering nonperishable food items, clothing and toiletries, to centres in Chišinău, Drochia and this week Soroca.

Another friend, Alex Weisler, and his colleagues at JDC, a global Jewish humanitarian organization, have moved quickly to assist the refugees. As Alex describes in this recent video from Moldova, “they haven’t eaten, they’re scared, they’re confused. They come here and they receive a sense that they’re not alone.”

Other groups are also helping, from Christian evangelicals to North Carolina nurses, who trained Moldovans how to assist refugee populations. Another former PCV friend, Rebecca Lehman, now in England, is helping a group there. Vladimir Snurenco, who led an English language center in Chişinǎu where I taught some classes, wrote me about an art sale in Michigan that raised money for Ukraine.

I’ve been working most closely with Friends of Moldova, an organization of returned PCVs that has raised more than $200,000 and distributed funds to shelters, churches and others. The group’s president, Bartosz Gawarecki, described the effort in this television interview. He recently returned to Moldova to help open new refugee assistance centers.

The North Carolina Peace Corps Association, on whose steering committee I serve, has generously donated to Friends of Moldova and the RPCV Alliance for Ukraine. In a few weeks, I’ll be speaking at the Rotary Club of Raleigh about these and other initiatives.

There is a lot happening, in other words, and I could have included more examples. Yet as my friends keep telling us, the situation remains stressful. David Smith is right: They need the cavalry.

I wish I could have provided a cheerier update about what’s happening in Moldova, but this is the reality. If you share our concern, I encourage you to contact anyone you know who may have some influence over the situation. Donate to Friends of Moldova or another organization. Attend a rally. Write a letter. Please help.

Moldovans Step Up

I am prouder than ever to have served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Moldova, whose people have been racing to assist refugees from neighboring Ukraine.

(Scroll to the end of this article to learn how you can help, too.)

Despite being one of Europe’s poorest countries, Moldova has stepped up in a big way, as you can see with some examples from places I know there:

Champa did her pre-service training in Costești, a village that has converted its tourist complex into this refugee center.

My training was in Bardar, which has opened a home for refugees.

We served together in Ialoveni, whose citizens are now working to help the refugees in various ways. This Facebook post offers them free dental services. 

We lived near Stella’s Voice, a home for young women in danger of being trafficked. They just opened their doors to several young Ukrainian women.

Ialoveni’s officials are cutting through red tape to assist the refugees, such as by quickly notarizing their travel documents.

Many of my Moldovan friends have been posting images to show their support for Ukraine.

Peace Corps Moldova has been helping, too, both as an organization and through its staff, some of whom prepared these meals for distribution.

The Friends of Moldova, a group of returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) and others, has launched a fundraiser to aid refugee support efforts, which are far more extensive than the few I’ve described here.

Ukraine RPCVs have been working on several fronts, from advocacy to fundraising, through the RPCV Alliance for Ukraine.

Amid my own outrage at Russia’s aggression, I have been inspired by the brave resistance of the Ukrainian people, and by the government and citizens of Moldova and other countries — including ours. 

There are many ways you can help as well. A good one you may not have considered is by supporting this groundswell of activity in Moldova. David Smith, an RPCV who still lives there, publishes an excellent newsletter that just listed several ways you can do this. If you, too, are outraged by what you’ve been seeing, then donate today — and please feel free to add other comments or suggestions below.

Slava Ukraini!

Top image: AP/Aurel Obreja

Next Door to Ukraine

Ukraine shares a long border with Moldova, where I served in the Peace Corps from 2016 to 2018. With Russian forces now threatening Ukraine, it’s a good time to share some things I learned about the neighborhood.

Moldova and Ukraine have separate identities and histories, and I don’t claim any expertise about Ukraine, but the following seven photos do tell interesting stories:

I’ll start with this photo of me with Vladimir, my “host father” during my pre-service training. He served in the Soviet military, preparing to fight their Cold War enemy — in other words, us. Now he was hosting an American. For so many Moldovans — and Ukrainians — the Russian military is not an abstraction. It’s something they know personally.

Americans endured great suffering during World War Two. My father was among those who saw friends die in combat. Yet the Soviet Union had more than 50 times as many deaths as we did, a toll that’s seared into their collective memory. Almost every Moldovan city and village has a memorial, including this one in the capital. Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukrainian sovereignty is unacceptable, and I’m glad to see our government pushing back so forcefully, but we shouldn’t be surprised when Russians obsess about the security of their borders.

This Soviet memorial and Orthodox church are in Comrat, a small city that is the capital of Moldova’s autonomous region of Gagauzia, which we visited. Most Gagauz people speak Russian instead of Romanian. So do people in other parts of Moldova. Ukraine also has regions where most people speak Russian and have strong cultural and familial ties to Russia. Simultaneously, some of these same people now feel more loyal to Ukraine than to Russia. It’s complicated.

This statue is outside the school where Champa taught. Sanduța Petru served in the Soviet military and was killed in Afghanistan. His memorial reminds us that the Soviets suffered a military disaster there long before our own recent debacle. About 15,000 Soviet troops were killed during nine years of fighting with the Mujahideen, a force with less equipment and training than Ukraine has now. Putin surely remembers that conflict, although one wonders what conclusions he draws from it.

This statue in Moldova’s capital memorializes the devastating deportation of Moldovans to Siberia and other locations during Stalin’s rule. Many died during this Great Purge and Moldovans have never forgotten about it. I met several families whose relatives or friends were deported. Tens of thousands of Ukranians were banished as well and I assume their neighbors haven’t forgotten, either.

Champa and I toured Odessa, where my grandmother grew up. We visited the magnificent opera house and strolled past beautiful buildings, parks, shops and statues. Odessa was the third largest city in the Russian empire. As you can see in this photo, it’s a Ukrainian port along the Black Sea. If Putin attacks from here, as some analysts predict, his troops could march into the city via the famous Odessa Steps, which Sergei Eisenstein immortalized in his 1925 film Battleship Potemkin. Stalin later banned that film over fears it might incite a riot against his regime. That’s interesting to contemplate now.

Finally, while President Biden and others are warning loudly about the Russian threat, Ukraine’s leader has acted calmer, as have many Ukranians (and Moldovans, for that matter). President Zelensky’s approach may be calculated but he also was a comedian before entering politics. He’s not alone among Ukranians in having a sense of humor, as you can see from this shop window in Odessa.

I emphasize again that I served in Moldova, not Ukraine, which is a bit like someone opining about the United States after living for two years in Canada. But I was in the region long enough to grasp the complexity of its history and culture. If you hear an American politician or pundit suggesting the current situation can be easily explained or resolved, I encourage you to be very skeptical.

Top Ten Books 2021

My favorite books of 2021 took me from an African village to the streets of Harlem, two kingdoms and a distant galaxy. Here’s my Top Ten list along with other books I enjoyed (and some that disappointed me).

Are you a fellow reader? Please leave a comment with your own suggestions!

I’ll start with How Beautiful We Were, Imbolo Mbue’s powerful story of an African village destroyed by colonialism and corporate greed. An American oil company contaminates the village and buys off the local dictator. Children die. Families flee. A local woman leads a resistance movement. You know disaster is coming but can’t stop reading.

Between Two Kingdoms, Suleika Jaouad’s memoir of battling cancer, is compelling in a different way, and with a happier outcome. I’ve read other “illness memoirs” but none as raw and honest as this one. Jaouad, the long-time partner of musician Jon Batiste, takes us on a harrowing journey.

Cancer also plays a role in A Calling for Charlie Barnes by Joshua Ferris, a tale about a middle-aged man who is deeply disappointed in life. The Great Recession and illness derail his American dream until fate gives him a second chance, with a big — and very surprising — assist from Ferris. 

The hero of Tom Lin’s The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu is a Chinese assassin who joins a troupe of magical performers traveling across the Old West, dodging disasters and bounty hunters while searching for his lost love. It’s a Western unlike any you’ve seen with John Wayne.

I was looking forward to Colson Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle since I loved both The Underground Railroad and Nickel Boys. Once again, he delivered. A combination of family saga and crime novel, Shuffle is a page-turner about a Harlem furniture salesman who is “only slightly bent when it came to being crooked.”

Razorblade Tears by S. A. Cosby features another African American man who is reluctantly drawn into crime. In this case it’s an ex-con who sets out to avenge the murder of his gay son, teaming up with the racist white father of his son’s partner. I enjoyed Cosby’s earlier Blacktop Wasteland and am now a fan.

Naomi Hirahara’s Clark and Division features a Japanese-American family that relocates to Chicago after being incarcerated in California during World War II. Something terrible happens when they arrive, which their daughter Ako struggles to understand and overcome.

Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Plot has a big twist at the end. I saw it coming but still enjoyed it and everything that led up to it. Her protagonist is a struggling novelist who unexpectedly publishes a huge best-seller, a book whose plot was actually devised by a former student. Will the book’s origins become public? The Plot reveals all with an engaging plot of its own.

Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World is part fiction, part fact and fully impressive. It presents a series of famous thinkers who changed history with discoveries that had profound moral consequences. Labatut combines a breathtaking sweep of science with vivid prose, translated from his original Spanish.

Last on my Top Ten list is Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary, a science fiction tale about a school teacher who awakens on a space ship without knowing why he’s there or even who he is. He’s on a mission to save Earth but must team up with an alien whose planet is also threatened. The plot is somewhat ludicrous but always entertaining. I can’t wait for the forthcoming movie version.

All of these books were published this year. I have an even longer list of books from 2020 that I enjoyed but read too late to consider for my Top Ten from last year:

  • Three Hours in Paris, by Cara Black
  • Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick
  • The Guest List, by Lucy Foley
  • The Searcher, by Tana French
  • Writers & Lovers, by Lily King
  • The Biggest Bluff, by Maria Konnikova
  • The Secret Life of Groceries, by Benjamin Lorr
  • Monogamy, by Sue Miller
  • A Children’s Bible, by Lydia Millet
  • A Promised Land, by Barack Obama
  • Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell
  • The Missing American, by Kwei Quartey
  • Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson
  • How Much of These Hills is Gold, by C. Pam Zhang

(My favorite was the luminous Hamnet.)

I enjoyed some older books, too. Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay With Me, Joan Silber’s Improvement and Scott Galloway’s The Four were all as compelling as when they appeared in 2017. Chuck Collins made me think harder about white privilege in Born on Third Base  (2016) and Tom Barbash entertained me by combining the Peace Corps and John Lennon in The Dakota Winters (2018).

With three other books, I was fortunate to meet the authors online through classes I took with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Duke. Sister Helen Prejean, who was portrayed by Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking, told her own story in River of Fire. Sam Quinones sounded the alarm in Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic. Osha Gray Davidson brought Durham history to life in The Best of Enemies, recently adapted in a Hollywood movie. Thank you, OLLI.

A different trio of books reprised characters or themes from previous work. Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William! continued the story of Lucy Barton and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Committed updated his The Sympathizer. In The Premonition, Michael Lewis highlighted experts who foresaw the COVID-19 disaster, much as his The Big Short featured those who predicted the 2008 financial meltdown. I enjoyed all three of these new books, although not as much as the originals.

Other good reads included the Evan Osnos biography of Joe Biden, Simon Rich’s latest collection of humor essays (New Teeth) and the Laura Dave thriller, The Last Thing He Told Me. A guilty pleasure was The Cellist, the latest in Daniel Silva’s series about Gabriel Allon, the Israeli spymaster and art restorer. (This time he foils an evil plot by Vladimir Putin and Russian oligarchs.)

Memoirs? Yes, I enjoyed those, too, ranging from Saturday Night Live to the restaurant business, network news and standup comedy. Colin Jost, David Chang, Katie Couric and Jerry Seinfeld: Thanks for sharing your stories. Anderson Cooper: I wish you’d made Vanderbilt easier to follow.

I had personal connections to three excellent new books. My former Duke colleague, Ashley Yeager, profiled astronomer Vera Rubin in Bright Galaxies, Dark Matter, and Beyond. Dale DeGroff, a family friend and legendary bartender, updated his The New Craft of the Cocktail. Journalist Amanda Ridley featured my sister and her husband, among others, in High Conflict, an inspiring account of people breaking through the political and social barriers that separate us.

Then there were the year’s disappointments. Jonathan Franzen has written amazing novels, but Crossroads was not among them, at least for me. Cecily Strong is brilliant on Saturday Night Live but This Will All Be Over Soon is what I kept hoping as I read her pandemic memoir. I had high hopes for A Swim in the Pond by George Sanders, Blindness by José Saramago, Bath Haus by P.J. Vernon, Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner, My Year Abroad by Chang-rae Lee and The Overstory by Richard Powers. All were well-reviewed, but I couldn’t finish any of them. (Sorry.)

As always, thanks to the Durham County Library, through which I downloaded many of these books onto my Kindle.

If you’ve made it here to the end, I invite you again to leave a comment or suggestions for me and other readers. Happy reading for all of us in 2022!

Join us on the journey.

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