Suheir Rasul, Vice President of ALSAC Global, was among those who greeted a second group of Ukrainian patients flown to Memphis en route to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital for treatment. By the time she encountered the young patients and their families Monday night, they had made the perilous journey out of Ukraine, crossed the Polish border to a triage center, then were sent more than 5,000 miles to Memphis. This is her account of that meeting.
The sun has set, the lights in the bus are stark white as we drive onto the airport tarmac to wait for our next group of Ukrainian patients. The war in Ukraine makes no sense to me, but then, how often does war make sense?
As my colleagues and I wait, I pray silently for the plane to land smoothly. That moment when the wheels touch down can be jarring. I want the landing to be an easy part of their unthinkable journey.
I think about the extraordinary nature of what I’m about to witness. Just weeks ago, these mothers and fathers were living life, walking to coffee shops, buying groceries, meeting friends for dinner. The children, even fighting cancer, had a life they were used to, the familiar comforts of home.
Now they’re ‘war refugees’ desperate for help.
They must be wondering if they will ever see their Ukrainian friends and family at home again. And where exactly is Memphis, Tennessee? What is going to happen to them? Can they trust us?
I empathize because my mom used to share her immigration story with my siblings and me. At 18 years old she came to the U.S. from her home in Palestine. Though technically not a refugee, she fled the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and made her way to this country in 1972.
She did not know a word of English. She faced an unknown world and an unknown culture. She vividly remembered getting off the plane. It was 12 below zero, and there were heaps of white dust. She was seeing snow for the first time. She spoke of watching her clouds of breath in the air as she walked down the steps to the tarmac. Everything was new and different. She was anxious and afraid.
And yet, these families, the ones I’m about to meet, face even more worry and uncertainty because they have a critically ill child.
The plane finally lands — it’s a smooth landing — and I quickly see the worry, the fear and anxiety, on their faces. Their fatigue seems overwhelming.
They rush onto the bus waiting to take them to St. Jude, but not without double-checking on their luggage. They’re concerned about the few belongings they still own. I want to help move their bags onto the bus, but it’s clear they intend to keep a tight grip on them.
I hop on the bus briefly to confirm all families are settled and see the small faces, some asleep in their parents’ arms, others staring at the strangers around them speaking a foreign language. I wonder how these stoic parents are really holding up. Some of these families are not intact. Mothers decided to risk taking one sick child to the other side of the world while leaving a spouse and other children behind, not knowing when or if they’ll be reunited. Their strength, courage and determination are being tested. It’s a test no family should have to endure.
We arrive on the St. Jude campus late in the evening and enter the patient care lobby where a team of clinicians and caregivers waits to greet and assess the children and get the families fed and settled safely in housing.
A toddler runs gleefully to a corner where toys are stacked, breaking the tension. I smile with relief. Finally, a moment that makes sense.