Adam Zivo: The American Refugee
A conversation from the start of a new, brutal war
By: Adam Zivo
The following occurred in Warsaw in early March of last year, just two weeks after Russia’s full-scale invasion.
At 3 a.m., after tossing in bed for an hour, I surrendered to insomnia and creeped up the stairs to the hostel’s lounge — an attic-like space, with a bar and kitchen on one end, several sofas and tables arranged throughout, and a chalkboard wall graffitied with cartoons and well-wishes. Maybe I could get some writing done. Two other travellers — both in their early twenties and with several empty beer bottles on their table — were locked in a lively conversation while tropical house music played quietly in the background. One was a thin American who spoke in bro-isms, the other a bulky Italian who gesticulated dramatically.
I plopped myself on a sofa beside them and began to type — my thoughts muddled with exhaustion — and managed to stitch together a few paragraphs. Eventually the American turned and asked what I was doing. I told him that I was a journalist who had come to cover the refugee crisis. His face lit up — he’d just arrived from Kyiv.
“Do you mind if I record an interview with you?” I asked.
The American, Nico, enthusiastically agreed and apologized for being drunk. I placed my phone beside him, opened up a blank document, and asked him about his journey to Warsaw.
“There were bombs, man. I was living in the centre of Kyiv. We had sirens going off and we had to live in the shelter downstairs. For the last night there, I was so tired I tried to sleep in a loft in the building. And, like, I heard bombs and sirens and I got maybe two hours of good sleep. Everyone was trying to leave, but some people couldn’t.”
“Transportation was a problem. We paid for a bus — $300 per person.”
“$300 per person?” interjected the Italian, incredulous.
“$300 a person, man.”
“Oh fuck,” said the Italian, clasping his hands on his knees. “Why are you surprised? People always make money on war.”
“Our bus driver was a national hero, man. He drove, cut lines, did whatever he had to do. I was sitting next to a woman who was seven months pregnant. Bro, he wanted to go to Lviv. My friend Anja said we can’t go to Lviv because there’s bombings on the road, so the driver took us to the border and then we crossed.”
Lviv, a large city in western Ukraine near the Polish border, had become a transit hub for fleeing refugees. I planned on going there. “So Lviv is being bombed right now?” I asked.
“No, not right now. Three days ago, shit was happening. Maybe it is — I don’t know.” Nico took a sip from his beer. “We got to the border and sat there for almost seven hours in the cold. There was a cemetery nearby. Me and my buddy walked in the cemetery and we almost fell into an open grave. There was some plywood shit over the grave. Our toes were freezing and we needed to walk.”
The music had stopped. Whenever the conversation paused, I heard only my fingers hammering at the keyboard.
“We hadn’t slept for like four days at this point. It was really rough. We went over the border and went to a refugee camp, eating soup and shit. We met some Polish guys who drove us to Warsaw.”
“What was the difference like between the Polish and Ukrainian side of the border?”
“Polar opposites. On the Ukrainian side, it was like nothing. Nothing.”
“There was no help at all. Nothing. Then we got to the Polish side and there were sandwiches, water, everything. Buses ready to transport everyone. It was great, but it took hours, man. It took us half a day to get through the border. Then some guy brought us to Warsaw and gave us a place to stay.”
“What brought you to Kyiv?”
“Life. I was travelling for years and I made good friends in Kyiv and decided to stay.” Nico ran his hand through his hair. “I went back to Miami, worked, made some money and came back to Ukraine. I was making my life here and then the war happened. I was trying to do a business and other stuff.”
“What kind of business?”
“Like exports to the USA. Like Pokemon cards — different stuff, man. All over the place. I was trading weird stuff from Olx [an online sales site] and selling to the USA, mostly on Ebay. I would send it to my brother in the states, too.”
The Italian burst out laughing. “Ask him about his fucking business.”
I turned to the Italian and said, “I think his business is interesting. It helps readers understand how—”
The Italian broke down into another fit of convulsive laughter.
“I was hustling. I was hustling. I was doing whatever I could,” said Nico.
“Okay,” I said.
“No, for real.”
The Italian’s laughter filled the room. He wiped his eyes and anchored his arm on the table to keep himself steady.
“It was getting money. I was making enough to get by, man,” said Nico.
I gestured to the Italian. “This guy doesn’t seem to believe you.”
The Italian regained his composure and turned to me. “Okay, one thing. If you want to win the Pulitzer, he’s not the guy you want to win it with.”
Flustered, Nico said, “I was out there selling Pokemon cards, really. I was picking shit up on Olx. Do you know what Olx is?”
“No, what is it?”
“Olx is like Ebay in Ukraine. I was buying shit on Olx and selling on eBay and doing the best I could. I came to Ukraine months ago with some money and then I spent it all and then I had to hustle.”
The Italian learned forward, almost falling off his chair. “Say how much you had.”
“When I got to Ukraine, I had a little more than $25,000.”
The Italian raised his hands in the air. “He went with this amount of money to Ukraine — not to fucking Dubai. Say how much you have right now in your account.”
“About 25 cents.”
“Okay, thank you. That’s the point of the story,” said the Italian, with glowing satisfaction.
“How are you going to get back home?” I asked Nico.
“I’m not going back home.”
“So how will you survive?”
“I’m good. I have sponsors and shit. I’m a daily hustler, man. I do what I can. I loan a little bit here. I get tax returns. I do what I have to do. It is what it is. Right now, it’s an interesting time. I’ve been displaced. I’m an American refugee.”
“How many Americans were in Kyiv?”
“None. None. When we left, I had a bunch of friends, but only two American friends were still in Kyiv when all this happened.”
I closed my laptop. “I think I’ve got enough. This is a really interesting story.”
Nico fell asleep shortly afterwards, limp in front of his empty beer bottles. The Italian and I chatted about an assortment of things, none of them related to Ukraine, until I told him that I had to get back to my writing. I needed to file a story for a newspaper as soon as possible, and, with this sleepless night, the next day would surely be a write-off.
The Italian woke Nico, and together they went to their beds. Now there was only the hum of the refrigerator. I typed until sunrise, weaving together the stories of the mothers and children I’d seen at the train station — the ones who had arrived in Warsaw with nothing. They did not have homes. They did not sell Pokemon cards on Ebay. Their status as refugees had been thrust upon them with profound cruelty. They weren’t here to hustle. They were just trying to survive the war that had been brought to their country.
The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Pitch us something: email@example.com