Back in February: what fascinates me about Ukrainians?
Emel Mordo, Director People and Culture of Philip Morris in Ukraine, Armenia, Georgia and Moldova
It was an evening flight on January 10th, 2022, when I was returning from Istanbul, my native city, to Kyiv, my home for the past 3 years.
My phone was red with the news advising foreigners to return home – at least until things settle down.
I was just coming home. What does it mean to “return home”? What happened while I was on vacation? I may go to Istanbul, but where will my team members, our people, and the millions of Ukrainians go? I was following the news constantly and for several months we have been discussing various scenarios with our Special Situation Team and looking into possibilities of what to do in case of escalations from Russia’s side. What did I miss? How can this really happen? I want to go to my home in Kyiv…
Drove to the office early next morning – to understand the reality on the ground, to find answers to hundreds of questions in my mind. I was confused, anxious and at the same time enjoying the sunshine that was greeting me, along with the freshness of the cold winter as I was driving next to the Dnipro river.
The office was a breath of fresh air. Two people from our team were sipping their coffees and enjoying their usual chats. They read the recommendations, but they had a different perspective – the West is worrying too much, the war in the East has been ongoing since 2014, it will be all ok… Their smiles were liberating, and their usual strength gave me the power to let go of my doubts. Nothing had really changed; everyone was busy celebrating Christmas with their friends and families. So, I enjoyed my cup of coffee, chatting cheerfully with them, and getting on with our usual tasks.
As the embassies of international community started closing one by one, asking their personnel to leave Ukraine, I had no choice. Schools converted to fully online learning. Documents for our Labrador were arranged, suitcases prepared – very light ones though, as we were going to come back in a month at most. What did anyone of us know at that time… And I waved goodbye to my husband, 2 kids, and dog for a plane to Istanbul at the end of January 2022, with tears pouring down my face like I have never experienced before…
I went home, charged several power banks, went to the supermarket to buy some water and sustainable food, and opened my laptop to keep going – to act normal, trying to stay strong and resilient.
This is just a temporary situation.
All will be well.
Not panicking, to avoid creating further panic in our organization.
The next two weeks were just as bumpy as the start of January, until eventually I had to leave Ukraine on February 13th, when there was the rumor about airspace being potentially closed within the next 24 hours. I had to leave my beloved home in thirty minutes to catch the plane. I couldn’t comprehend what I was experiencing, why I was leaving, and what was ahead. How was I supposed to face my team and our people the next day, when they were staying and I was leaving???
On February 24th, I woke up in the middle of the night, with the alarm system that was set up in our phones to be activated only in case of true danger. The war had started, and the missiles were all over Ukraine – not only in specific regions, or cities. It was worse than the worst-case scenario that we were even dared to contemplate. What we had been preparing for for months had become our worst nightmare.
Being outside of Ukraine at that very specific moment gave me the opportunity not to think about myself or my family, but just to be there for our people, and for our organization. We were connected instantly with our teams – fortunately the internet was still working. Priority was to ensure their safety and security – every morning began with a check-in of our teams and every evening ended in the same manner. We created a database to keep track of the locations of our almost two thousand employees and their relatives – a mission impossible almost to date…
Getting organized to manage the chaos was our challenge. People we would count on in our teams were still on the move, running for their own lives. So, we turned to the Ukrainians who were abroad, who were able to speak the language, knew the people, understood the circumstances, no matter in which country or time zone they were in. We created a call-center in Krakow and leveraged the consumer call-center in Moldova.
Our colleagues working in marketing, legal, finance, human resources became simple call-center agents – trying their best to guide, to soothe, and to show that we are there for each other. Our security and safety teams in bordering countries got organized to welcome any person, women, children, and family members that could cross the border and bring them to a safe and warm location with some food in the fridge and toys on the bed for the kids following their heart-breaking journey.
It was the 4th night after the start of the war, we received a message in our corporate channels from one of our employees from Ivano-Frankivsk, they they were starting a self-led platform to support each other - which roads to drive from, where to find fuel, available homes people can sleep overnight, and medicines that can be delivered to those in need.
We repurposed our transportation buses for evacuation from Kharkiv, where we have a factory and sales office with more than 600 employees. Who has ever organized an evacuation in their lives? There was no time to think about these questions, no time for self-doubt.
This was the time to work together collaboratively, leveraging each other. It was action mode – counting the families who are ready to leave their homes, convincing and calming down each family over and over again, organizing the buses, extracting fuel from the factory premises, preparing food, water, accommodations while planning the pick-up routes, and then changing the routes again and again because it was simply too hard for some and there were others who wanted to join. In the first round, we evacuated more than 200 people, and in total, almost two thousand people.
“We leave no one behind” very quickly became our motto, and soon grannies, nieces, nephews and pets, including a pregnant dog and guinea pigs, joined us in the journey. Each life that was saved gave us the strength to continue.
All these efforts were done by people who were themselves in need of actual support, but who were selflessly there for each other, just because they had something to offer. There were women, who were taking care of their own kids, husbands, and the elderly, while being constantly on the phones to lend a helping hand, even sometimes working from shelters or calling others from under the blankets so that the lights of the phones would not be visible at night.
There were men who were driving families of other employees to train stations at any hour. There were parents carrying disabled adult children on their backs because getting their wheelchairs was just not possible. There were women who left behind their husbands with weary eyes and took their children to a completely unknown location, to ensure the next generations would be saved and safe from the constant shelling and the air raids. And there were men who sent out their wives and kids to safer locations while staying behind in dangerous locations to distribute humanitarian aid to the elderly. There are young generations advocating in volunteering projects to rebuild schools and help those in need.
The past three years revealed the toughness and flexibility of all people in Ukraine. Yet, there is a special place in my heart for Ukrainian women. Their resilience… Their powerful smile beating the constant worries… Their passion to succeed at work even during the times of war… Their constant creativity and positivity to leap forward to create the new… Their inner care for their own well-being, putting an oxygen mask on themselves first to be able to help others… Being a tutor in the evenings to ensure kids are well-equipped for the future and will not miss out on their math classes… Being a patient daughter to rationally explain to their parents in distant villages to move into safety, while reluctantly and silently consenting to their choices to remain in their hometowns… Their compassion and fight for all those in need – advocating for the needs and rights of more vulnerable people…
My kids are asking every day when they can go back to their home and their friends. I don’t know when, but I know that day will come, and Ukraine will win the war with shining stars. Till then, we stay strong, lean on each other, remain positive and continue to put “care” in the heart of our actions.
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