October 18th, 2023

Sam and Mark meet twin baristas in Lvi, Ukraine.

Hello all,

We finally made it to Lviv Ukraine. After flight delays, a bus in Warsaw that never showed, a 9 hour bus ride, Ubering to the wrong hotel and then schlepping on foot to the right one, we arrived an hour before curfew, with empty stomachs and few food options.

During the bus trip the only other non-Ukrainian on board was a Peruvian named Alejandro. Alejandro is a veteran of the private military company Triple Canopy and had been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. He is part of a Ukrainian Foreign Legion unit made up completely of Peruvians and Colombians. I have encountered many Colombians here, and Alejandro explained something that I have heard previously about their reckless bravery in battle here. “Los Colombianos son locos.”

Alejandro did not speak much English, so here were two guys in Ukraine communicating in Spanish on a bus from Poland. It was surreal, or I believe the word is incongruous.

Yesterday we met my friend Anna downtown at a beautiful church in the center of Lviv. Anna is one of the volunteers at the orphanage that we have been supporting since last year. On our last trip, my friend and teammate Hymie Dunn donated cell phones and laptops and art supplies to them.

Prior to the children arriving, Sam and I went to a coffee shop and met Nadia and Olga, twin baristas in their 70s. They wore matching outifts, and I couldn’t tell them apart as they walked in and out from the back of the shop. I practiced my improving Ukrainian with them and found out they had lived in Chicago in the 70s and worked as maids. They enthusiastically showed us their photo album with pictures of them always wearing matching clothing. We took photos with them and they asked if I was married, and were visibly disappointed when I said yes.

Many children from different orphanages arrived, including a group of all deaf kids. We accompanied them all to a special youth prayer service for peace in Ukraine. It was in a stunningly beautiful Orthodox cathedral. The sides of the chapel held photo-covered displays of fallen soldiers and debris from weapons that have fallen on Lviv. Many women said prayers and tearfully pointed out photos of those they had lost.

At one point in the service the young priest walked the aisles and offered the microphone to parishoners to join him in prayer. He came towards us and Sam and I shared panicked looks. Instead of reciting the prayer I had to cover the microphone and explain in Ukrainian, that I didn’t speak Ukrainian. The priest laughed and moved on.

At the end of the service we were acknowledged as volunteers and the priest came and thanked us for coming and for supporting Ukraine.

We then took the kids to a local pizza place and they were ecstatic. Sam and I visited at the adult table with Anna, her husband a journalist with an online magazine and the bus driver Ivan. Ivan is a wine maker whose dark stained hands I mistook for those of a mechanic. Ivan has a daughter and grandchildren in Los Angeles and enthusiastically shared his photos with us. I paid for the pizza party and the kids were very grateful. Sam tried to talk to some of them, but they were too into their phones and pizza. Anna’s daughter Amelia, a previous recipient of one of Gloria’s bears, gave me a small toy as a token of her appreciation. She gave me something similar last time we met.

When we arrived at the orphanage, Sam played and sang for some of the children in one of the upstairs classrooms. Originally, we were supposed to be with the younger kids, but as Ukraine would have it, plans changed of course and instead she played in front of the pre teens and teens. There were varying levels of interest but one of the young boys listened and watched intently and made requests for music from Michael Jackson and Imagine Dragons.

These kids come from the war torn eastern oblasts of Luhansk and Donetsk and their families are either dead or stuck behind russian lines. Some have behavioral issues as well. This, added to the fact that they are in this age of defiance and boundary testing made it a less than optimal audience, but Sam solidered on and played beautifully like the pro that she is. At one point two of the girls had to be separated when one stabbed another with the crucifix on her rosary. Some of the girls moved with the music and they were all very appreciative at the end.

We Ubered back to the center of town with Anna. A four dollar ride that would have been twenty in the US. We said our farewells and headed to a small dinner of borscht and salad. Our waiter Dima spoke perfect English and was also a musician. He and Sam talked about music and exchanged Instagrams. At the end of dinner, Dima came up to us and thanked us for being in Ukraine and helping his country. He said it was people like us who give him hope and make the world a better place. Once again I am humbled by the gratitude and warmth of these people.

Sam playing the guitar at an orphanage in Lviv, Ukraine.
Special youth prayer service in an Orthodox Church in Lviv, Ukraine.