​The Human Tragedy in Ukraine

Posted by Tim Gilmer in Life After Paralysis on March 18, 2022 # News

We are witnessing a heart-wrenching tragedy in the midst of a terrible war driven by a dictator with no heart and an insatiable hunger for more territory, more power, and revenge — even though Ukraine did not provoke a war. As one of many millions looking on as the cruelty and targeted evil continues to unfold, I feel frustrated that I can’t do anything to make it stop.

But I can take a moment and share what personal knowledge I have of the Ukrainian people, and how it breaks my heart and makes me want to help them however I can, especially after watching several days’ worth of TV news footage showing refugees fleeing the war, including a surprising number of wheelchair users. Old women being pushed in their chairs, steps in front of exploding shells. An old man being helped in his chair across a blown-up bridge. Young and old, disabled or not, struggle to leave.

As a full-time wheelchair user, I have owned and operated a small farm in Oregon since 1982, when I started with a small U-Pick business. I was an experienced gardener, but this was my first try at growing and selling vegetables. I offered a good selection, but tomatoes were my favorites, so I grew more of them. It didn’t take long before people started showing up, especially for the tomatoes. What became obvious was that Ukrainian people love their tomatoes, and they came each year for tomatoes as the word spread in their southeast Portland community that this farm was close, affordable, with a quiet country atmosphere.

At first, I thought they were Russians, which at one time they were. I did not recognize that Ukraine has been an independent country since 1991. Whatever I called them, Russians or Ukrainians, they had a deep appreciation for tomatoes — the look, feel, smell and flavor of juicy field-grown tomatoes, not the hard-as-baseball varieties that you can throw at the side of a barn and watch them fall to the ground with nary a split.

One day, a local Ukrainian woman with a family came with a hot dish she had prepared for me to thank me for having a U-Pick. I felt it may have been because I was obviously crippled. On another occasion, a man asked if he could pick up baby walnuts in their husks that had fallen from one of our walnut trees. A month later, he returned with a large jar of baby walnuts in the husk, pickled in vodka. “Take three every day and drink juice,” he said. “It is healing power, they help you.” I was right. They wanted to fix me, but it didn’t bother me. All they wanted to do was help. They could have just picked their tomatoes and left.

Over the years, they kept returning, like swallows to Capistrano. I started to get to know and recognize them by name, and whenever they returned, it seemed we were old friends. They often came as whole families, complete with a grandmother, or more than one family packed into a station wagon. I began to have real feelings for them. Some would call me, and we would talk, not only about tomatoes. I learned that many of them came from farm countries, and they missed not having space for a garden. When Ukraine was in the Soviet Union, they couldn’t own land, it all belonged to the state. Most of the U-pickers had come to the U.S. to escape prior to becoming an independent country.

And now Putin is attacking their homeland, with families just like the ones who came here, many with relatives in Russia as well as Ukraine. He is relentlessly driving them off the land they love. Ukraine is often called the breadbasket of Europe — among the world’s leading producers of corn, barley, and wheat — and Putin wants the whole basket. He will kill as many people as he can first and drive the rest out, men, women, children, babies.

Old men and grandmothers like the ones that came with their families to my farm. Some with walkers, scooters, wheelchairs. Young people living with disabilities, including quadriplegics and paraplegics. Putin doesn’t discriminate. He will drive them all off. They inhabit the land he wants, and he is intent on taking it all. And what of the rest of Europe? Will he stop at Ukraine? President Biden likes to tell the story of how he looked Putin in the eye in 2011 and said, “Mr. Prime Minister, I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.” Putin just smiled and said, ‘We understand one another.’”

The Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation offers international resources. Additionally, the Foundation's highly trained Information Specialists are available to answer your questions in 170 languages.

To help people with disabilities in Ukraine, read more about Fight for Right.

Joni and Friends in the LA area are also helping evacuate Ukrainians with disabilities. Learn more here.

Tim Gilmer graduated from UCLA in the late-1960’s, added an M.A. from the Southern Oregon University in 1977, taught writing classes in Portland for 12 years, then embarked on a writing career. After becoming an Oregon Literary Fellow, he went on to join New Mobility magazine in 2000 and edited the magazine for 18 years. He has published upwards of 100 articles, 200 columns, occasional movie reviews and essays. He and Sam, his wife and companion of 47 years, also own and operate an organic farm south of Portland, where they live with their daughter and son-in-law, four grandsons, and a resident barn owl. An excerpt from a memoir about his early post-SCI years, as part of a compendium of his writing over the past 30 years, can be read at his website — All You Need

Photo by Reuters/Stoyan Nenov/File photo.

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