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Day 27: Sewing for Ukrainian Soldiers

When I offered to help them sew for Ukrainian soldiers, I didn't know they would ask me to sew on a sewing machine.

Day 27 Sewing for Soldiers

Oksana pointed to a sewing machine. “You sew now.”

I bit my bottom lip and shook my head no.

“You no know how?”

I shook my head no, again.

When she said they could use my help for a day sewing things for Ukrainian soldiers, I figured I would sweep the floor or wash dishes or something.

I pushed one finger up and down on my hand and slowly moved it forward. “I sew slow, maybe. Straight. Okay.”

Oksana sighed. “No. Work other.”

Yeah, that’s a better idea.

Oksana and her friends are all from Ukraine. Oksana moved to Poland years ago and is married to a Polish man. Many of her friends who sew with her are refugees who came to Poland since the war started.

In fact one friend remembers approaching the Polish boarder with 8 people in the car. Getting to the border had been their goal. Now that it was time to cross, they didn’t have a plan.

Sure, they had family in Poland, but nobody had enough room to bring in an extra eight people.

Oksana stepped into the crowd and started talking to the refugees. She asked the woman if she and her family wanted to come to a refugee center in Tarnow.

They accepted the offer and ended up at the center where I was visiting today. The women run their volunteer program out of a former kitchen on the ground floor.

Oksana didn’t remember meeting the woman or helping her family.

Maybe that’s a sign of a good volunteer.

I met Oksana on my first trip into Ukraine. She was our translator whose specialty was befriending interesting people and then making sure I heard their stories.


On that trip I saw her posing with soldiers who were wearing grass outfits, but didn’t know until later that she helped make those outfits even though she had zero sewing skills. She showed me a video she made of she and her friends who work together to sew clothes.

As our night train zoomed through the night on that trip, I had asked her if her friends taught her how to sew.

She said that they were all learning together.

I had said that I wanted to meet these people.

She invited me to come any time.

My train arrived this morning at 11:00. She greeted me with a hug, introduced me to her friend and her friend’s daughter who was a junior in university, Mary, who would be our translator for the day.

Mary said that she was very nervous that she wouldn’t know the right words.

I told her that we could speak in Ukrainian.

She said in English, “You speak Ukrainian?”

“Not a word. So I think we are better off using your English.”

She laughed, then translated for Oksana and her mother.

As we rode in the car, Mary sat with me in the back and told me her story.

Her family lived in the Donetsk region of Ukraine where both of her parents worked as engineers. In 2014 when the war started (I think she said 2014), they moved to Kiev. She remembers how difficult it was to start over. New school. New friends. Her father became a builder in Kiev; that was the only job he could get.

Then when the full-scale invasion happened last year, they had to move again. Mary didn’t want to do all of that work, again to start over. They ended up in Tarnow. Her father now works as a truck driver and her mother is a full-time volunteer at this center.

I asked her, “Where is home? Is it Donetsk? Is it Kiev? Is it Tarnow?

She took a moment to think about her answer. She looked out the car window at the shopping district of Tarnow as we drove by. She turned back to me. “Home is where my family is. I am fine as long as I am with my family.”


At the refugee center Oksana gave up on me sewing and sat me at a table. There was a piece of netting attached to a frame. She showed me how I was to tie one piece of yarn onto the grid at a time. This piece of cloth would be part of a Ghillie Suit, a grass suit. She modeled how to double the piece of string, push the loop through the hole and then pull the tail through the loop.

I watched carefully. Crafts are not my strong suit. Neither are mechanical projects. I was seriously worried that I would waste their time and their resources and get it wrong.

Mary sat across from me and after watching our tutorial, we began to tie yarn, one piece at a time, onto the grid. We were told to mix up the dark green, light green, light brown and dark brown pieces so that it would resemble a natural, grassy landscape.

I asked if we should use certain proportions of certain colors.

Mary asked and relayed that we should just mix them up.


Around the room women worked on different projects. Cutting. Sewing. Measuring. They showed me prototypes and finished products. One belt had pieces sewed onto it to hold a tourniquet, a magazines and other necessities. They had finished the first belt yesterday, it was already in the field.

It was shocking to see how many things they had made. Oksana had the ideas, and Mary’s mother was an engineer who used her design skills to make Oksana’s ideas into prototypes.


Seeing the ingenuity that these women used to create things that soldiers needed made it very clear in my eyes: Ukraine will win this war.


I took a piece of light green yarn and doubled it, fed it through the grid and then pulled the ends through the loop. I skipped the next hole in the grid and added a piece of dark green to the following hole. I kept going, tying yarn onto every other space, piece by piece.

I noticed that Mary could tie faster and that even when talking, she could keep up a fast pace.

Not me. The moment someone asked me a question, I stopped working. “Do you live in a house?” “Do all teachers make so much money that they can travel?” “What made you want to help Ukrainian people?”

Normally I would be the one asking all of the questions, but I needed most of my brain power to focus on my work.

They made a hot meal for lunch and Oksana remembered that I was gluten-free.


They were kind and only gave me one dish at a time, insisting that I should not feel bad if I didn’t like it.

The meat and potatoes was so delicious that I asked for the recipe.

The woman who made it paused before she gave it to me. Not because it was a coveted recipe, but because it was a quick meal.

I repeated the directions back to her then asked, “You add the mayonnaise with the cheese or before it?”

Mary translated then told me, “Before the cheese. With the meat and potatoes. On top of them.”

As I committed the recipe to memory, someone handed me the rice dish. Yes, I ate seconds. And then there was a salad that was a lot like the coleslaw with ham and peas that the soldiers served to us on our first trip.


Someone asked if I wanted a slice of tomato.

Yes, please.

How about cucumber?

I know. I might have to stay longer if they keep feeding me such deliciousness.

The women talked and laughed. Mary translated. “Won’t it be funny if all of America starts cooking Ukrainian food?”

I laughed with them and said, “That would be great.”

After lunch we got back to work.

Mary flew through her side of the grid, I worked slower. Two women sat with us to help us finish the piece.

Oksana showed me a burlap bag and said, “This how we make.”

I wasn’t sure what she was saying.

Mary said, “They take a bag. Cut it into pieces. Die each piece, then they pull apart the pieces to get the yarn. They are careful that all of the pieces are the same size.

I took a deep breath. So rather than buying yarn, they are cutting, dying and pulling apart burlap bags?


They showed me the material where they got the grid from.

Mary explained that they bought curtains at a secondhand store and dyed them green. All of the suits they’ve made so far were made from those repurposed curtains.

Wait. What?

Since I don’t sew, I have no idea if buying grid material is something that I could do back home, to help them. I told them that I would try to find some. We made a video of what we needed (the material has to be white with a 1 ½ centimeter grid pattern.) and I sent it to my older sister, who sews and has a yarn shop. She didn’t see the video till later. We can discuss it when I get home.

When our piece of the suit was finished, one of the women sewed it into—I think it was the hood.

Oksana asked me if I wanted to try on the suit.


She insisted that first I must check to see what time my train was leaving.

I told her we had lots of time; I was with them for five hours.

She insisted I check.

It was 3:45 and my train left at 4:15.

No! How could time have gone so fast?

They dressed me in the suit and added the hat that would go over a helmet.

We stepped outside.

As we walked past the children who were playing on the swing set, they shouted, “Hello!”

I had greeted them when I arrived that morning. They must have been waiting all day for me to talk to them. Darn it. Now it was time for me to leave.

As I rushed by them for my photo shoot, I said, “Nice to meet you.” Then added, “What is your favorite color?”

That’s the one question all language lessons include.

Children called out colors. “Rad. Gree. Yilo.”

I clapped for their right answers and repeated them back to them. “Yes. Red. Green. Yellow.”

As I posed with Oksana, her friends joked that there was more work to do; they weren’t going to let me leave.

I felt it too, there was something about spending time with these women that felt like home.

Holding a piece of material.
(They cut burlap into pieces, dye it and then pull it apart to get yarn. Seriously?)
A woman sewing
(Oksana putting the suit together.)

Women work together.
(My translator Mary sits across from me. Women step in to help us add yarn.)

Wearing a grass hat.
(Modeling a hat that would be worn over a helmet.)

A woman with gray hair sews a suit.
(Sewing the grass suit together.)

A woman crouches down on the ground.
(I am wearing the suit outside--center right of the photo. I saw soldiers wearing the suit in a grassy field where the wearer becomes invisible.)

A woman stands with another woman who is wearing the grass suit.
(With Oksana.)

Waving goodbye.
(We arrived to the train station early, so we sat inside. We lost track of time -- again. When the train came we had to run through the station to make it. Oksana put one foot onto the train so it couldn't leave; I made it on. And just happened to be on the car with my assigned seat.)

I show off the new belt the women sewed.




Day 21: Trauma Talk part 2

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