Editor’s Note: Amed Khan is a human rights advocate, political activist and philanthropist whose board memberships include the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP). He held leadership positions in the Clinton Administration and was a member of the International Advisory Council for the International Crisis Group. The opinions expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
The contrast couldn’t have been more stark. Last week, as fires crackled in homes across America and families gathered to give thanks, half-a-world away a dictator sent missiles raining down on Ukrainian neighborhoods, cutting power in his quest to steal their independence.
On Thanksgiving Day, I visited my friend Sasha in a military hospital filled with young Ukrainian soldiers who had been bombed or shot, huddling with family in dimly lit rooms.
Sasha, 35, was recovering after a mine blew up his pickup while he was traveling to a newly liberated village in the Kherson region.
Russia’s withdrawal from this key southern Ukrainian city earlier this month was a major blow for the Kremlin, but it left residents with ruined infrastructure and the lingering threat of mines, trip wires and unexploded ammunition.
Sasha only survived because one of his fellow soldiers navigated their truck out of the minefield, found help, then returned to carry him out. For him and his comrades, that was just another day in their battle for freedom.
As a direct action philanthropist, I have spent most of this year in Ukraine distributing medicine and supplies. And having been in war zones – Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan – to help rescue thousands of refugees, I have seen many acts of heroism over the years.
But the acts of heroism I have seen in Ukraine stand out. A small army is facing down one of the most feared militaries in the world – and it is winning.
Ukrainian victories are being fueled as much by the bravery of ordinary citizens as it is the valor of its soldiers. We have seen Ukrainian soldiers win many improbable battles. But unless you’re on the ground, it’s easy to miss the fact that those victories are only possible because of millions of small, selfless acts by ordinary people, each with a deep sense of patriotic resolve.
This fight should matter to us all because it is, at its core, a fight for values the democratic world holds dear. As Ukraine’s battle for freedom risks slipping from America’s national consciousness into the litany of faraway tragedies we too often ignore, let’s take a look at what’s happening behind the headlines.
Over 200 days, in small villages and big cities throughout Ukraine, I’ve seen different versions of the same story play out again and again: ordinary people coming together to do their part to win their country’s freedom.
The young boy named Pavel running a lemonade stand in the Kharkiv region to buy night-vision goggles for his older brother fighting on the frontlines. His uncle, Slava, opening his home for soldiers to get some sleep and a rare hot shower. And his grandmother, Natalia, distributing the harvest from her garden to their entire neighborhood.
Of course, they would rather be living their ordinary lives. But they can’t. They bear the burden of the war, any way they can, just like every Ukrainian.
After Russians bombed a girls’ orphanage outside Odesa, those girls became construction managers, overseeing the rebuild. When Ukrainian soldiers found a German Shepherd separated from its family, girls from the village of Kupiansk in northeast Ukraine volunteered to drive him to a foster family in Italy – and then they came back with a truck full of diapers and baby formula for their families.
We are watching an extraordinary story play out before our eyes, and we have a chance to influence the ending. Imagine, for a moment, 40 million people waking up every morning and thinking, “What can I do today to save lives and save my country?”
That is happening in Ukraine every single day.
Let’s be clear about what’s on the other side: a regime whose brutality is underestimated, even now. Russia invaded a sovereign country by bombing maternity wards and bread lines. They have raped and tortured children, according to United Nations testimony.
Preventing those atrocities also has implications beyond Ukraine. Pushing Russia back now will deter it from invading other former Soviet states further down the line. Russia’s flagging fortunes on the battlefield are also giving China a reason to pause amid renewed speculation of invasion of Taiwan. Gas prices would almost certainly be lower were there peace in Ukraine. And Russian defeat would be seen as a Western victory in the geopolitical struggle for growth, influence and power.
But the truth is the stakes are even higher. Every day in Ukraine, I am surrounded by modern day versions of the patriots who won American independence. Though they are different struggles, we fought for freedom and self-determination, just like Ukrainians today. They face one of the largest and most extensively resourced armies in the world, just like we did. The righteousness of their cause matches our own from almost 250 years ago.
For Americans, backing Ukraine is a moral and strategic imperative rooted in our values. Republicans and Democrats have always come together to defend those values because we’ve always agreed that allowing corrupt autocracies to thrive breeds chaos and instability that ultimately hurts us at home. That unity is now faltering.
As a new Congress takes office in January, I implore my fellow Americans – and policymakers who decide how we use our resources to advance our values – to recognize that support for Ukraine is support for people just like us, who want the same things we do.
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Just a few days ago, a young man in Kherson told me that his country “can survive anything … because we are free.”
The fight for his city and his country is not over, but it’s hard to think of a sentiment that would resonate with Americans more than that.
If grandmothers and their grandchildren are spending every waking minute trying to help their country survive, the least we can do is continue giving them a fighting chance.