The news from the war in Ukraine continues to be filled with both strong stories of resistance and sadness at lives lost, families separated, and power-hungry leaders. It's so far away from Rochester, Minnesota, it can be hard to focus on it.

Then I saw a post by Keisha Diephuis. It was the story of a friend of hers in Ukraine for school, losing touch with her family during all the madness. Keisha has kindly allowed me to repost her story here (slightly edited).

I started praying and praying hard.

 

Keisha Diephuis
Keisha Diephuis The road leading into Talas Oblast
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This week is #peacecorpsweek so it feels like an appropriate time to share this very personal experience. For those that don’t know, I lived in Kyrgyzstan for just over two years (from 2011 to 2013).

For three months I lived with a host family just outside the Capitol city of Bishkek. I was supposed to learn the language (Kyrgyz) and culture, but my host mom and dad spoke Russian. Fortunately, my host sisters and brother spoke both and often ended up translating my Kyrgyz homework to Russian and back (I definitely had to learn some Russian, and quickly, to communicate with my host parents).

Keisha Diephuis
Keisha Diephuis in front of dam with Lenin's head carved into it (top left). Showing how intertwined the counties were when it was the USSR.
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Once I moved to my permanent location with a host family in Talas Oblast (I lived there for two years), I spoke mainly Kyrgyz but hired a Russian tutor to continue learning Russian. Peace Corps. helped pay for my Russian tutor and my host family spoke both Kyrgyz and Russian, making it easy to do my homework assignments with them.

My Russian tutor, Akoli (pronounced Ack-cole-eye), spoke English, Kyrgyz, and Russian. She had a goal of studying abroad someday, so I worked with her on her English exam to enter universities in English Speaking countries as a thank you for the Russian lessons beyond what I could give her monetary.

Akoli (pronounced Ack-cole-eye) - Photo by Keisha Diephuis
Akoli (pronounced Ack-cole-eye) - Photo by Keisha Diephuis
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3 years ago she sent me a WhatsApp message letting me know she got accepted to a university in Odessa Oblast in Ukraine. Over the next 3 years, I got frequent messages from her as she continued to want to learn English and I would respond in Russian or Kyrgyz to keep my language skills in both languages active.

A few days ago, I got a WhatsApp message from her sister Munira. Munira sent me a frantic message on WhatsApp in Krussian (a mixture of Kyrgyz and Russian, which I knew thanks to a host mom. She'd speak Krussian when she couldn’t remember the Kyrgyz word, there was no Kyrgyz word, or she got worked up and her Kyrgyz and Russian ended up running together in a sentence, so this was familiar territory to me).

Keisha Diephuis and Akoli
Keisha Diephuis and Akoli
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Munira said that they hear from Akoli almost every day/every other day and they haven’t heard from her since the Russian invasion in Ukraine. Munira said her parents were worried and trying to get on a plane to get as close to Ukraine as they could to find Akoli.

I talked to Munira and her parents on WhatsApp to try to calm them down because naturally they were worried about their daughter and wanted to be sure she was okay. I continued to talk to them saying going to Ukraine right now may not be the best option.

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I started praying and praying hard.

I sent Akoli messages asking her to get ahold of me ASAP because for some reason I thought maybe there was a chance she could contact me instead of her family for some reason.

Yesterday Munira sent me a message that Akoli had contacted them that she was on her way home. Munira told me part of the story and today Akoli reached out to me with the rest of the story.

The entire trip home = 2752.674 miles! (Google)
The entire trip home = 2752.674 miles! (Google)
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Akoli was studying in Odessa Oblast. She evacuated to Moldova with some of her friends and roommates. When she arrived at the Moldova border and showed them her Kyrgyz passport they told her they didn’t have a Kyrgyz embassy and weren’t completely sure what to do with her as a Kyrgyz National and not a Ukrainian National.

They told her they couldn’t place her in a refugee camp with her friends she had traveled with. However, they provided her refuge while they contacted both the Kyrgyz embassy in Hungary and Turkey asking for assistance. The embassy in Hungary responded immediately stating they may be able to help. Moldavian forces transported Akoli through Romania into Hungary to the Kyrgyz Embassy.

Keisha Diephuis and Akoli
Keisha Diephuis and Akoli
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When she met the Kyrgyz embassy representative at the Hungarian border, they told her they had to figure out a flight plan because they didn’t want to fly over Ukraine for fear of being shot down and they didn’t want to send her through Russia with a Ukrainian visa in her passport.

The next two nights Akoli slept in the Kyrgyz embassy while they figured out how to get her home. Finally, they were able to work with the Kyrgyz embassy in Turkey to fly her through Turkey and around Ukraine and Russia.

Late last night Akoli landed in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and made her way back to Talas Oblast and is home.

People Helping People

Hungary Opens Its Borders To Refugees Fleeing Ukraine Invasion
ZAHONY, HUNGARY - MARCH 08: Refugees fleeing Ukraine arrive at the border train station of Zahony on March 08, 2022 in Zahony, Hungary. More than 2 million refugees have fled Ukraine since the start of Russia's military offensive, according to the UN. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
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a person is a person no matter what, and they will always support people at the end of the day.

Akoli has told her Ukrainian friends and roommates if they can get a visa to Kyrgyzstan, her family will provide them a place to stay. Many of her neighbors have also said if she can get some of her friends and their family to Kyrgyzstan, they will help provide places of refuge.

My friend, and those that know her from a little village in a relatively remote area of Kyrgyzstan, with relatively little to provide for others, are willing to provide safe havens for those in need in another former Soviet country.

Think about how amazingly beautiful this is.

This is Akoli and Munira’a house when I lived in Kyrgyzstan. (Keisha Diephuis)
This is Akoli and Munira’a house when I lived in Kyrgyzstan.
(Keisha Diephuis)
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Having been to Akoli’s house a few times when I lived in Kyrgyzstan I asked how her neighbors to one side who were Russian (and we used to spend time at their house too because they didn’t speak Kyrgyz so it would force me to use my Russian with Akoli and them, and were in the minority as Russians in Talas Oblast) were responding.

She stated that they were one of the first people to offer to take in some of her friends and their families. She asked them for their thoughts and while they didn’t come out and condemn or support either side (for obvious reasons Akoli said, they’re essentially in a catch-22 situation with whatever they say), they told Akoli that a person is a person no matter what, and they will always support people at the end of the day.

Dancers Practice At Ballet School In Kyrgyzstan
BISHKEK, KYRGYZSTAN - MARCH 09: A pianist plays while ballet students warm up before a class session on March 09, 2021 in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Bishkek Choreographic School was founded in 1926. Many graduates from the school have gone on to have international careers in Russia, Kazakhstan, USA and more. (Photo by Yam G-Jun/Getty Images)
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Love saves us.

 

This is a reminder that the Russian invasion in Ukraine affects not just Ukrainians but the entire world. Please continue to support Ukraine in whatever way you possibly can and pray for everybody affected by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Суйуу бизди сактайт (I don’t speak Ukrainian so this is Kyrgyz). любовь спасает нас (Russian). Love saves us.

Keisha Diephuis works at the Southeastern MN Center for Independent Living (SEMCIL), is a mom to an amazing "little man" and can be heard every Tuesday at 7:40 AM on Y-105FM's Early Morning Show where she shares her Adventures in Dating.

As always, if you have a comment, complaint, or concern about something I wrote here, please let me know: james.rabe@townsquaremedia.com

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