Discussions / War Against Ukraine

Wednesday, March 09, 2022

Look for the Helpers-but Remember that They’re Human

Whenever a mass tragedy takes place in the United States, it’s common to see a quote from children’s show host Fred Rogers circulate on social media: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

I can’t help but think of this quote as I watch my friends and colleagues in Ukraine mobilize to help. Of course, “help” right now is taking many forms, probably far beyond anything Mr. Rogers thought American children might see. People are taking up arms to fight in the territorial defense forces in cities around Ukraine. Outside of fighting, people are organizing supply deliveries, sewing camouflage nets, volunteering to drive people to safety, or coordinating routes to evacuate families. People are organizing to get Ukrainian women, children, elderly, and disabled people to safety, whether to safer places in Ukraine or to the borders so they can cross into Poland or Romania or another central European country. In those countries, Ukrainians are continuing to help, and locals are mobilizing too, offering their homes, their food, clothes, medicine, baby strollers, and anything else that might be needed. Outside of the border guards, state entities have largely stepped back from intervening in this mass forced movement of people, letting civic and international organizations do the work they are already trained to do. Many of them already have experience from working with displaced Ukrainians for the past eight years.

The stories of the helpers are already the stuff of legend-the grandma who destroyed a Russian drone with a jar of pickled tomatoes. The other grandma who screamed at Russian soldiers that she hoped they had seeds in their pockets so that sunflowers would grow over their corpses. The men who stopped a Russian tank with their bare hands. The “Ghost of Kyiv”-who turned out to be a fiction anyway.

But in a talk for a global audience of anthropologists, my colleague Maria Sonevytsky commented that these heroic stories aren’t necessarily good. They can be dehumanizing. Representing Ukrainians as David fighting Goliath makes us forget that these are just ordinary people faced with an extraordinary-and unacceptable-circumstance. They are doing what they can to fight and they are willing to lose their lives in the process. We can celebrate their wins-we have to, if we want to keep going-but we have to remember that these are the same people sleeping in metro stations, sending their children to family in Poland, and dying to try to feed starving animals. And we have to remember that there’s only one cause for their suffering-a megalomanic who wants to deny Ukrainian humanity.

So look to the helpers-but don’t forget to hold the villain accountable.

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