From Colorado Public Radio’s production team for this interview:
Sarah Davison-Tracy, the founder of Seeds of Exchange, a global human rights group, visited Ukraine in May of 2022, and then again in August, along with her friend John DeYoung, delivering portable water filters to citizens. On that second visit, Davison-Tracy’s husband, Brandon, a pediatrician in Denver, was also there. Brandon says the trip had a profound impact on his life, and the couple plan on returning to the country every year to visit newfound friends and help rebuild the war-ravaged land.
LISTEN to the Interview
CPR Narrator: As the war in Ukraine enters its second year, we are reconnecting with Coloradans close to the conflict. Sarah Davison-Tracy is the founder of Seeds of Exchange, a global human rights group. She went to Ukraine last year to deliver water filters.
Her husband, Brandon, a pediatrician in Denver, was also there. A year now after Russia’s invasion, they spoke with my colleague, Anthony Cotton. Brandon explained the impact that first trip had on him.
Brandon Davison-Tracy: I honestly couldn’t have pointed out Ukraine on a map with a hundred percent accuracy a year ago. And that is embarrassing for me, but I know I’m not alone. And all of a sudden, I was kind of awoke to people in need; and not just in Ukraine, but all over the world.
It just happened to strike a chord with me. And of course, because I’m married to Sarah, I think I’m a little bit more sensitive to what’s happening internationally.
And then when she went in May and it profoundly changed her, I didn’t want to be a bystander at home, and I wanted to be an example for my kids and my patients and the people that I work with to be like,
If you have a nudge, there’s something nudging you. You need to listen to that nudge and that voice.
And part of it is I just want to be a partner with my wife, so we’re going to be sharing in the story not just sharing stories.
And when I got there, it was as if that was where I was always supposed to be. I’m not Ukrainian, I don’t have any family history there, but I felt like a kinship and a brotherhood.
And that’s just the backstory. But when you are there and you are seeing the struggle firsthand … You can see bombed out buildings on the news till the cows come home, and eventually you just get desensitized to it. Until you’re standing in a bomb pit and talking to people outside that bomb pit because that is where they used to reside and that’s where they used to work … That is moving. And that’s an understatement.
And so, it’s no different than what I tell my family, or again, the people I work with, or the kids I take care of; you don’t want to be a bystander. If you see something being bullied, you need to stop the bully. And in my opinion right now, Ukraine is being bullied.
That’s an understatement. But I can’t just stand back and let it happen. If I have some kind of skillset and I can bring people together to help them, I can’t do that by staying here.
Not that someone has to go to Ukraine to not be a bystander. You can do many, many things besides just going to Ukraine. But for me, I needed to go and see it. And I fell in love with it. I fell in love with the people.
The need is going to be markedly more than we’re even guessing right now. Because even if the war stopped tomorrow, the infrastructure’s still broken. It’s going to be maybe five to 10 years before they could be back to where they would’ve been.
So this is going to be with us for decades and decades and decades, and the war’s not stopping anytime soon.
So that’s the brief Reader’s Digest version of how it struck me.
Yeah, it changed my life profoundly.
Anthony Cotton: When you went, it wasn’t with regards to your work as a pediatrician, was it?
Brandon Davison-Tracy: It wasn’t, no. Not directly. I kind of went with the eyes of a pediatrician or the eyes of a medical doctor, but I just wanted to be a hand. Like if they just needed things loaded or were trying to get bulletproof vests, or I’m going to be loading the bottled water into a truck or moving the luggage, I just wanted to be an observer to kind of see what my [contribution] could be the next time I come.
But what I was really struck by is people just want to see you there. They just want to have a friend on the ground. I mean, in Ukraine, to have an American come over and just be there to witness it and to say, “I’m here to do anything I can”, it really moved them.
The same way if we were being attacked and a Ukrainian came over and helped us. You would just be so moved that they took that amount of time and energy to be there.
But for me as a pediatrician, since we were going with Vivoblu [water filter company], water is medicine.
I mean, if there was a kiddo who was infected or had a catastrophic injury, they’re not going to do well with antibiotics alone if they’re dehydrated. They’re not going to do well with a cast or a bandage or sutures if they’re dehydrated. That just doesn’t happen. I mean, if you live without water, you have the best chance of surviving three or four days. So that is more of a priority as far as just an essential need, but medicine does nothing without water.
And water is the universal thing we’re really thinking about right now with Ukraine as its infrastructure is being dilapidated.
So, I kind of went with that mindset and was shocked at how much the infrastructure had been destroyed. I mean, the showers and toilets are being run with salt water [in Mykolaiv and surrounding villages, where we were] just so they can have some sanitation, but you can’t drink that. And they consider that a positive. At least they have something to wash their clothes and to shower in. But they can’t drink it. And it’s getting worse and worse and worse.
And on the front lines, the men and women there are suffering and drinking melted snow with straws and getting sick.
And since we have an available tool that can help them on the front lines, that’s the least we can do.
Anthony Cotton: Sarah, it’s been six months since you were there. It may sound kind of cliché, but do you find yourself thinking about it pretty much every day?
Sarah Davison-Tracy: Yes, you know, for me, it never ceases to amaze me how powerful it is to have some kind of personal connection with a place that is in crisis.
So, for me, with this war in Ukraine, I see the news just like everyone else and have social media stories that will pop up in my newsfeed,
but there’s something extraordinary that changes when there is this sense of kinship, of friendship, of building. Truly we feel like these friends have become our family, and all of a sudden, this cause has become deeply personal.
And that is an extraordinary motivator to think different and do different, because now all of a sudden when we see the news, we know that in those cities that we’re seeing a news bit about, there are families [we know and love]. You know, a friend of ours just had a baby in January in Mykolaiv, and there were bombs going off as she was giving birth to her baby girl.
So yes, we’re thinking about the country because the people have just become so … As Brandon said, we’ve just come to love them with all our hearts. So we’re committed to do whatever we can to share their stories, to do tangible, practical things to help whenever we can, and just show up and be available.
Anthony Cotton: But helping is what you do. Was there anything particularly different about this experience than the help you’ve always provided?
Brandon Davison-Tracy: You’re in a war zone here where you’re typically not. When you’re in India and Nepal, you’re not in a war zone. There are not bombs falling around.
It’s always different because the people who we are collaborating with and developing partnerships and friendships with, everyone’s got their own unique story, their own unique struggle, their own unique heroism.
I mean, since I was a kid, I’ve just delighted and basked in finding places of similarity no matter how different we appear, and that sense of common humanity, shared humanity. And then finding stories that need to be told that are unique to a particular place people struggle and be tenacious about sharing those with people so that they themselves can fall in love with and do what they can to make a difference.
I mean, the country, the struggle is unique. Brandon and I are educating ourselves to learn about the historical context of what’s going on in the lives of these friends and family of ours in Ukraine.
So it’s, yes, unique, but also, this thread of commonality. When people are suffering that have experienced hardship, you know, there’s some kind of injustice going on, what always takes my breath away is just the resiliency of the human spirit when hope is not allowed to die.
And that is what’s happening in Ukraine. I mean, the friends of ours there, they are resolute in hope and in their own sense of, “We are not going to stop fighting. We are going to win.” It’s like this hope in their spirit, but also very practical. They are using whatever tools they have at their disposal to win and to care for one another and to share their story with the world.
And that is what really captured our hearts and our attention; probably for the rest of our lives.
Well, certainly for the rest of our lives, because you can’t just go and make friends and see these relationships that are flourishing in the midst of this crisis, and you become one of their family members and not show up the next time. You have to keep on showing up.
So this is not something we’re probably ever going to give up on, because they’re going to need us and we may need them at one point.
But yeah, the thing is not just that we went, it’s that we’ve gone and we’re going to come back. We’re going to keep on coming back and keep sharing the story.
Because the Ukrainian conflict, there’s already a lot of fatigue in the United States, and Europe especially, and just kind of, “Man, I just wish this would get over. Why wouldn’t just Ukraine just give up a piece of that land and just give it to Putin and this can be over that?” That’s not how it’s going to go. And that’s a horrible mindset.
Because I understand when you’re bombarded with all those images over and over and over, you can only tolerate so much because there’s stuff happening here too. We just don’t want them to forget their story, because I think helping them actually represents and symbolizes how we can help each other.
I tell my kids the same thing. “You’re helping Ukraine by talking to someone homeless on the street. You’re helping Ukraine by, if there’s a neighbor that’s in need that can’t go get groceries because he or she is a shut in or they’re not doing well; going over and talking to them and sitting down and having tea and just getting to know them, that helps Ukraine. That’s just being human, that’s humanity.”
All that energy put out there does make a positive influence towards helping people in need no matter where they are.
Anthony Cotton: I’m curious about something. Sarah mentioned the idea of the two of you educating yourselves about the history and the conflict and such. And you’re doing this amidst life in the US in Colorado. What does that look like? How does that work for you guys?
Brandon Davison-Tracy: Part of it’s just reading more. There’s a book that I just started reading called Lost Kingdom, [Lost Kingdom: Ukraine and the Search for Russian Borders] which is about just basically the history of Russia written by a Ukrainian, interestingly enough. It’s excellent and it’s very in depth about why Russians might see this conflict in a different way just by history. That’s a simple thing.
But the more important thing is, I meet most weeks with a woman who is teaching me Ukrainian so I can learn to speak it. She herself is Ukrainian. She’s in her late eighties, early nineties, and she has a lot to talk about. But she’s part of the community here. So I feel like I have a little bit of my Ukrainian community here. But just talking with her, oftentimes we’re not even doing a lesson, learning Ukrainian. She tells me about her childhood growing up in Ukraine and what it was like and what her opinion is of this conflict and her family that’s still over there.
Sarah Davison-Tracy: We’ve gotten connected with an extraordinary community here in Colorado called Ukrainians of Colorado. They’ve been around for years, and they are very, very committed to supporting the refugees that have come to Colorado from Ukraine and supporting one another, because every single one of them has friends or family there. Their news feeds are very personal when it comes to what’s happening in Ukraine, and just supporting each other, being half a world away from people that are near and dear to their hearts.
And so for me, when you ask, on the day-to-day, how are we fueling this work while we’re here in Colorado and Ukraine is long distance away, for me, it comes down to relationships.
Just this morning I was on a call with a friend of ours, Masha in Mykolaiv – just hearing more about how their family is doing. We were on a radio interview this morning with a friend in South Africa.
And that for me is what life is about. It is about building relationships and learning from my friends about what is happening in their world, and then doing whatever I can to share their stories with others.
And like you said, most of us are not highly influential presidents and heads of state. We’re just everyday people that have jobs and are parents or grandparents or sisters or brothers, and it’s like, how do we do what we can with the margin we have in a day to really learn to do what we can to care for people?
Whether it’s donating funds to relief work or volunteering, or like Brandon said, in his spare time, reading a book that’s going to fuel his understanding about what’s happening in the country, I believe it all matters.
And if it comes with a sense of deep care and compassion and finding ways to love each other, I fully agree with Brandon. Whether it’s locally here in our neighborhood of Denver, Colorado, or we’re hopping on a plane and going back to visit our friends and family in Ukraine, it’s all the stuff that lights up the world and lights up our own lives.
Anthony Cotton: Sarah, when you were on our show last year, in August, you talked about the dinners you shared with the people over there. And I was curious what kind of the lasting impact. Well, for now, because obviously you’re going to go back – the lasting memory from that trip … what it was for each of you. Was there a single thing that stood out to you?
Sarah Davison-Tracy: You’re going to make me choose one thing!? I’ll tell you the first that comes to mind. (There are so, so many things.) Brandon and I talk about the dozens of things that keep remaining with us.
The first that comes to mind is the people that were our hosts, translators, drivers, became dear, dear friends. They are part of a global NGO called Young Life Ukraine. It’s an international youth organization.
And what I love – and loved – because I still see them doing it and it inspires me every day! – is the way that they use whatever they have, whatever tools they have at their disposal.
So, for example, they have Young Life vans that they would take kids, pick them up at school, and take them to a club where they’re hanging out with other kids in cities all over Ukraine.
All of a sudden, these vans that used to be carting kids around town – although they’re still doing that – but now, they have a twofold purpose. Now, they’re loading humanitarian aid into these vans and taking them into occupied zones, into heavily bombed out villages in Ukraine.
And then once they’re empty of all their humanitarian goods that they’ve dropped off in these different locations, then they load evacuees into these vans and get them to the border to safety. And that is just one thing.
They also host people like us. They’re also turning their Young Life club rooms into places to store diapers and food and things to care for people in their neighborhoods.
So what’s very compelling to me about that is it’s just this practical thing: “What do I have in my daily life that is available to care for people in my community or in the world that are in need?”
And sometimes that is harder. It’s less comfortable to ask that question than the big thing, like going to Ukraine.
It’s more like, in everyday life, how can my friends in Ukraine inspire my daily thoughts, my daily actions to look for ways to care for people that are very, very practical. And that don’t require me to be a billionaire or be a head of state, but it’s like, I’m a mom carting my kids around town, and how do I just be that in a way that really loves people and cares for people well?
And that is the seed that they planted in me. They do that every day and they have not stopped. And they will not stop until the war is won and until the rebuilding is complete.
Brandon Davison-Tracy: Yeah.
One of the memories that sticks out – and Sarah and I talk about this often, too – is just being an ordinary couple.
The day we went to the front lines, when we were putting on our bulletproof vests, it was somber. We needed to be careful. When we got there, we were meeting a lot of the soldiers on the front lines and teaching them how to use – and distributing our water filters.
I remember one soldier in particular who was called away to help a wounded soldier on the front lines. When he came back and as we get to know him, we discovered he was a dentist. He was just an ordinary guy like the rest of us who’s trying to do his best to protect his country and to serve his people. And he was thrown into this role of being a medic on the front lines with dental training.
And he was gregarious. He was joyful – as much as he could be! – in that spot. He was showing us videos of him before he was in the war playing guitar with his rock band that he played in on the weekends.
And it just kind of really reminded us of the humanity that we forget about when a war escalates.
These are real human beings … on both sides. It’s not just the Ukrainians, it’s the Russians too. Those are real men and women that we want to know their stories, too.
We talked about this: It is not Ukraine versus Russia. This is really Putin’s war, and there’re lots of Russians that have different opinions, but it’s hard with the propaganda that they read and are exposed to, and with limited media.
But that reminded me of how important it is just to get to know people and to see faces and to make relationships, because it makes you care in a deeper way.
And even then, we were talking about how it rips these families apart, because there are Ukrainians, especially in the East, who they have brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles that are Eastern Ukrainian or in Russia, and they are now separated and they don’t speak. They completely are cut off from each other. They don’t agree or disagree with each other, but they are getting different kinds of news sources.
There’re families that have been torn apart, even just emotionally, because of the separation of the war.
And it’s a lot of that stuff.
It’s all about the personhood and the humanity of war that we forget about.
UPDATED: March 9, 2023
Take a look and watch this video: “Water Is Life: John DeYoung / Founder and CEO of Vivoblu”
Former street kid John DeYoung, who developed easy-to-handle water purification filters, now delivers ‘water for life’ to Ukraine as well as to developing countries. He explains his mission.
You are loved.
We belong to each other.
Let’s standTALL together and light up the world!
xo, -Sarah Davison-Tracy, Seeds of Exchange