The Brave Decision to Vacation in Ukraine

Written by Jake Stewart

Much like how most Americans remember September 11, 2001, I remember exactly where I was on February 24, 2022. I was sitting in my darkened apartment, my eyes glued to my laptop, tears rolling down my cheeks as the headline that I had been fearing for days practically screamed in my face: RUSSIA INVADES UKRAINE.

If you are puzzled as to why this could provoke such a strong reaction in a non-Ukrainian like myself, you are forgiven. To most Americans, Ukraine is nothing more than just another far-off country that they would probably struggle to locate on a map. To me, however, it is a country that has long occupied a special place in my heart. For nearly two decades, Ukraine’s history, culture, and relentless drive to become part of the Western world has held my deep respect and admiration.

As I sat there watching a livestream of Kyiv being rocked by explosions, I asked myself a simple question: “What can I do about this?”

Sadly, my initial answer was, “Probably nothing.” I was in no position to join the International Legion of Ukraine, contribute to the sanctions against Russia, or host any Ukrainian refugees in my tiny apartment.

As infuriating as it was, I knew I had to content myself with being a mere “keyboard warrior,” doing my own miniscule part to pray for Ukraine, draw the world’s attention to Russia’s crimes, and let any Ukrainians who were listening know that their struggle was not going unnoticed. This unexpectedly led to new friendships with individual Ukrainians through social media, as well as with other Americans who shared my zeal for Ukraine’s cause. But I was not satisfied. I wanted to do more.

In the two years since that poignant moment in February 2022, I never stopped asking myself the question, “What can I do about this?”

As Russia’s invasion unexpectedly faltered and Ukraine continued to shock the world on the battlefield, my answer began to change from a fatalistic “nothing” to an imaginative “what if?”

Now, fast-forward to May 4, 2024, when I found myself disembarking a train at the Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi railway station. Ukraine’s cities are still buffeted by daily air raids, their front lines are relentlessly pummeled by artillery, and their citizens are forced to take up arms against an enemy that is just as brazen as ever. Yet, there I was, in the heart of their capital city.

How on earth did I get here? Why would I willingly leave my comfortable, relatively safe life in the United States, and spend nearly three weeks in a place where I knew I could end up in the crosshairs of a missile?

Because I decided to be brave.

I spent over a month crowdfunding a variety of medical supplies that I knew could be used by the Ukrainian military. I cultivated the social media friendships I had made with Ukrainians who lived in Kyiv, Irpin, and Dnipro. I researched the safest routes in and out of Ukraine. Finally, I gathered the financial resources I needed to make this journey a reality—and put my fate in the hands of God.

It was not an easy trip. Since the airspace over Ukraine is still closed, I spent days “hopscotching” from Minneapolis, to Amsterdam, to Warsaw, and finally, taking an 18-hour train ride to Kyiv.

I passed through military checkpoints that I thought only existed in movies. I experienced the wail of air raid sirens that never seemed to completely cease. I spent three hours in a bomb shelter in the middle of the night as missiles battered the country’s energy infrastructure. I experienced rolling electricity blackouts resulting from those same attacks and unseasonably cold weather. And I endured the heart-wrenching moment when one of my friends, Volodymyr, was unexpectedly mobilized without even a chance to say goodbye to me in person.

And yet, it was also the most meaningful trip of my relatively young life so far. I was finally able to meet dear friends who I had only been able to speak to online. I visited the office of The Kyiv Independent, an English-language online newspaper that I have financially supported. I saw many of Kyiv’s most prominent landmarks and historical sites. I visited some heartbreaking—yet inspiring—sites in the Kyiv region that told the stories of countless heroic Ukrainians who defended their homeland. I had awkward encounters with the English-Ukrainian language barrier that nonetheless ended in mutual respect. I had my first taste of authentic Ukrainian cuisine in the presence of one of my friends. Most importantly, I delivered several dozens of medical supplies—tourniquets, bullet wound sealers, bandages, blood-clotting gauze, among other items—to a trusted contact who works with the Ukrainian military.

Everyone who knows me knows that I love to travel. I’ve been to many famous tourist destinations in my own country, as well as some of those of western Europe. However, for all the fun and relaxation that fancy hotels and peaceful beaches can bring, this trip eclipses all of them.

I have long believed that cultural tourism is much more enriching than an expensive tourist attraction, and in my opinion, this trip proved me correct. By cultivating friendships and delivering medical supplies to soldiers in need, I not only added another visited country to my list, but I made a tangible difference in someone’s life.

In the TV show “Mork & Mindy,” the late actor Robin Williams uttered his famous line:

“I don’t know how much value I have in this universe, but I do know that I’ve made a few people happier than they would have been without me; and as long as I know that, I’m as rich as I ever need to be.”

That is the prevailing feeling that this trip has left me with. I know that my small contribution by itself will probably not materially affect the course of this war. But if one man’s brave decision can make a difference in the life of someone facing a dangerous and tragic situation, I would gladly do it all over again—missiles and bombs, be damned!

To read more from Jake and learn more about this brave soul:

The Story of 1,000 Brave Decisions (More or Less)

I Used to See God as a Toymaker


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