In truth, the scene is pretty prosaic, a small room next to the chemical lab in Syracuse University. The only room that was available at short notice for a meeting of the Ukrainian students. It can accommodate only ten people. There are some folding chairs and two small tables. The walls could do with some painting.
Still this room is the site for a magnificent event, an unforgettable encounter of two people who will arrive at this point by a highly circuitous road.
Artem, 23, is the first to enter. New to the university, he is lonely and eager to pick a friend among other Ukrainians like him. How he comes to be here is quite a miracle.
Neither she nor her husband spoke a word of English. Entering the country was no problem, because nobody asked for a visa those days. He took a job as a meat carver, did it diligently for ten years, and also set about learning English. With his savings he then set up a small retail shop his wife could run. Two earnings, he thought, would not only ease their life, but also provide better for the child’s education.
Yulia did well in school and later in college, but, to the disappointment of her parents, did not meet any one she wanted to marry. They encouraged her to visit her native land, with the secret hope that she will meet an eligible Ukrainian lad. Old family relations invited her to endless social events, and her parents were thrilled to hear that she seemed to have taken to a teacher in the local school. Yulia, a determined woman like her mother, quickly made up her mind. She got engaged to Danylo.
When she heard that he might be conscripted, she went a step further. She married him, hoping to make a difference. It did not make a difference. Danylo was forced to join the army and went to the front. When he returned three years later, Yulia thought it was time for her to return to the bosom of her parents, along with her husband. Danylo too was eager to begin a new career in the new land. But they found that Yulia’s parents could not sponsor Danylo’s immigration, because they had never formally become US citizens. They had to wait another two years before they could finally land in New York’s giant immigration gateway in Ellis Island.
Five years later, Danylo and Yulia were finally a legitimate American couple, working decent jobs in retail stores and renting a modest apartment in Bronx. They were happy. Their happiness became complete when they had a healthy son, Artem.
Artem, a bright but shy boy, finished his school with distinction and chose Syracuse as his university, notable enough in reputation and close enough to his parents in Big Apple. Now he sits expectantly in the dingy room next to the chemical lab, as other Ukrainian students trickle in.
In walks the world’s most beautiful woman. Or so it seems to Artem.
Yana too has arrived at this magical moment by a winding road. A dangerous and highly circuitous road.
Her grandparents lived in a tiny suburb of Kyiv, near the edge of Dnieper river, which had been devastated by wartime hardship and had decided to flee Ukraine rather than face the expected Soviet rule. They had gone west, past Lviv, after trudging endless miles and passing the frontier, to enter Hungary. Their daugher, Yulyana, could not walk anymore and they planned to take a train.
As they waited, the siren went on and the three of them took shelter in a primitive bomb shelter next to the train station. A train station was a prized target and the two Allied bombers struck home. The shelter was smashed to smithereens, the grandparents were both wounded, and their girl was lost in the wreckage. They started digging in the debris with their hands. When the others in the shelter understood what they were searching for, in spite of the language barrier, they too started digging and finally they found the half-dead girl under the fallen beams.
Some of the men who spoke German begged a retreating truck of German soldiers for help. The soldiers agreed to take the Ukrainian family and promised to get them some medical help. The Germans dropped the family in a town the next day and the grandparents at first did not know where they were. They realized eventually that they had been dropped off at a monastery. The monks gave first aid to the couple and treated their daughter. When the monks realized that the couple had nowhere to go and were afraid to return to their homestead in Ukraine, they offered a job to the grandfather of looking after the grounds and the grandmother a scullery maid’s position in the kitchen.
There they remained for five years. When, quite accidentally, a senior monk mentioned his friendship with a Dominican priest in New York, the grandfather expressed his interest, for he had heard of the inflow of immigrants in the new country. Six months later, their passage paid by the monks, the family arrived in Boston, on their way to a shelter in Brooklyn.
The couple found jobs in the public transport system, and the girl, Yulyana, grew up strong and healthy. She studied and worked at part-time jobs, went to college for two years and then dropped out, to marry a young professor, whom she detested initially, for he was Polish, but eventually came to admire and love. They had a bright and brilliant daughter, Yana, who, to her parents’ great pride, had no difficulty getting admission in Syracuse University.
Yana did not expect to meet Ukrainians in Syracuse, but she has come to the meeting, mostly out of curiosity, for she has heard many stories of Ukraine from her mother. And, now, here is a young, good-looking man introducing himself as Artem and gaping at her face.
Fifty years later, they are still married, and they live a hundred yards from my home.
Yana still has a radiant smile. Artem still likes to see it every morning. They are still glad that their paths, however circuitous, miraculously crossed.