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Travelers Remind Us of the Beauty of Ukraine Before the War

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Los Angeles–based writer Eric Newman snapped this photo of performers in traditional dress in Ukraine's Dnieper Delta during a 2017 visit.

Photo by Eric Newman

Los Angeles–based writer Eric Newman snapped this photo of performers in traditional dress in Ukraine's Dnieper Delta during a 2017 visit.

A little more than one month after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, travelers offer their recollections of what visiting Ukraine was like prior to the destruction and devastation. And remind us not to forget.

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Five weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the clashes continue while we watch, heartbroken and still somewhat in shock—whether we have ever been to Ukraine during our travels or not. More than 4.1 million refugees have now fled Ukraine since February 24, according to the United Nations, a number that keeps growing each day. Of those, nearly 2.4 million have crossed the border into neighboring Poland, while others have gone to Romania, Moldova, Hungary, and Slovakia, among other countries.

“The escalation of conflict in Ukraine has caused destruction of civilian infrastructure and civilian casualties and has forced people to flee their homes seeking safety. . . . They are in need of protection and support,” the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) wrote in its latest report about the current Ukraine refugee crisis.

Last week, President Biden pledged $1 billion in humanitarian assistance for those affected by the war in Ukraine and announced plans to welcome up to 100,000 Ukrainians and others fleeing the war.

As we observe in horror as this humanitarian crisis unfolds, we have been reminded in recent days and weeks by travelers of better times in Ukraine, prior to the invasion, when the destination left an indelible mark on visitors’ hearts and souls.

“There was a time, just a few years past, when Kyiv would regularly host my visits,” my brother, Paul-Andre Baran, who owns and operates Anagram Brewing in Bucharest, Romania, recently told me. “The patchwork of images that still spring to mind flow from nubilous mornings walking through the slumbering city while visiting the glorious green and gold of the St. Sophia Cathedral, to late night descents into the deep caverns of beautifully ornamented subway stations that now house the many residents of that beautiful city.”

The bright green and gold St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv was a popular tourist destination prior to the war.

He noted that rather than seem “hard or broken from their long communist legacy,” he found the people of Ukraine to be “confident and aspirational of a future they worked to define.” Kyiv, he said, was very much a welcoming capital city “that earned its place beside its European brethren.”

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My brother isn’t the only person I know who has spent some time traveling in Ukraine. In 2017, while working as a senior editor at Travel Weekly, I sent Los Angeles–based writer, editor, and producer Eric Newman on assignment to Ukraine.

“When I visited Ukraine on a river cruise in May 2017, it was a place where one could almost viscerally feel the push and pull of history,” recalls Newman. 

Newman was on one of the first river cruises to make its way from Odessa to Kyiv following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, “and spirits were so high that the ship was greeted at the Kyiv port by cheering pedestrians and a brass band playing the songs of composer Vlodymyr Ivasyuk. I will never forget that moment, which resonates differently for me today, when I see a country that offered so much warmth, joy, discovery (and food!) torn apart by war. It won’t always be, of course. Ukraine is a country that knows and lives perseverance, and I look forward to the day when others can walk those streets in Odessa and Kyiv as I once did.”

Véronique Banzet, who runs the luxury travel service VeronicTravel, lived in Kyiv for five years and was there during the 2014 revolution. She recalls a Kyiv “colored with the roofs of the monasteries, full of life with all the restaurants, the terraces of the cafés, enchanted by the Opera and the Philharmonic hall.”

Banzet tells AFAR that Kyiv, Odessa, Chernivtsi, Lviv, and many cities in Ukraine are in her heart these days. “We are totally shocked and sad,” Banzet says.

One traveler recalls her time visiting Lviv, which she referred to as the little Paris of Ukraine.

Four years ago, Loretta Becker of Cruise World Inc. traveled to Ukraine with her husband. “It was such a memorable time,” she recalls. “We love Ukraine and her people.”

Becker and her husband visited Lviv, Kyiv, Odessa, and the Carpathian Mountain region. “We loved Lviv, the little Paris of Ukraine, with her sidewalk cafés and beautiful churches,” says Becker. “I was amazed at the beautiful architecture in Kyiv.”

During her trip, Becker took a Ukrainian cooking class, hired a sailboat one afternoon and sailed down the Dnieper River, and took a tour of Odessa’s hidden courtyards and attended a ballet performance in Odessa.

“As my husband has Ukrainian heritage, it was an incredible journey for us to visit the country of his ancestors,” she says.

How travelers can help Ukraine

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A little more than one month after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, help is still needed. Travelers who would like to assist refugees fleeing Ukraine as well as people who are displaced within the country can donate to organizations that are aiding and supporting those who are affected.

United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR)

Dating back to 1950, UNHCR works to provide everything from secure shelter to food and medical supplies to those who are fleeing violence around the world. The organization has been in the Ukraine since 1994 and has currently established outreach efforts to Ukrainian refugees who have fled to Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia. The current response plan includes partnering with emergency teams to ensure that basic needs are met for the now millions of refugees fleeing Ukraine.

“Millions of people—mostly women and children—have been forced to flee Ukraine. They are sheltering in underground train stations, walking hundreds of miles and leaving behind everything they’ve ever known,” the agency writes in its latest report about Ukraine.

To donate: give.unrefugees.org

UNICEF

The organization that works to protect children throughout the world estimates that 2 million children have been forced to flee Ukraine and more than 2.5 million children have been internally displaced.

“Children fleeing the war in Ukraine are also at heightened risk of human trafficking and exploitation,” UNICEF reports.

UNICEF is working to provide vulnerable children and families with essential services, including safe water, food, healthcare services, education, and protection.

To donate: unicefusa.org

International Rescue Committee (IRC)

The IRC mission dates back to 1933, and the organization currently responds to humanitarian crises in more than 40 countries throughout the world. The IRC is working to help provide evacuation services to people who are trapped by the conflict in Ukraine and to provide essential items to those being forced to flee. In Poland, the IRC is offering legal counseling, social work services, interpreters, and psychological support to Ukraine refugees.

To donate: help.rescue.org

World Central Kitchen

Chef José Andrés’s nonprofit specializing in humanitarian food aid has set up services in Poland, where the group is serving hot meals at eight border crossings throughout the country. The organization is also supporting local restaurants preparing meals in the Ukrainian cities of Odessa, Lviv, and Kyiv and is handing out meals in Romania, Moldova, and Hungary.

To donate: donate.wck.org

>> Next: Is Europe Travel Safe During Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine?

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