When I listen to Dmytro “Dima” Sherembey describe that quality as key to Ukraine’s future, I hear the truth of lived experience.
Dima is Ukraine’s number one HIV AIDS activist and runs many things including the brand new 100% Life Centre in Kyiv, a super-modern facility focussed on the health needs of vulnerable patients. His motto is “Fight for Life”, and under its banner, Dima, his NGO team and countless volunteer supporters fight for the rights of fellow citizens suffering from HIV AIDS. They deliver dignity where before there was physical death through lack of services and spiritual stigma through lack of understanding.
Dignity matters to Dima. He like thousands of others stood on the Maidan until Ukraine’s dictator stood down in 2014. He like others stands with the soldiers, who risk of the steady and savage death from Russia’s continued military aggression in two of Ukraine’s eastern provinces.
His advice at breakfast with me in a café of funky surrounds and funkier servers, and to all he comes into contact with, is to live large, to take pride, to embrace freedom and the possible, to act with determination, to completely and comprehensively own one’s life, and to know that one is answerable only to God. To be limitless.
There’s a street-fighter’s toughness and a convert’s intensity to Dima’s voice and words. Perhaps, it’s part of how, for 17 years, his philosophy has kept him sober and off the drugs he was once addicted to. The drugs that landed him in a hardcore prison for a 2 year stretch; the prison where he used dirty needles for his habit; the dirty needles that gave him HIV AIDS.
As I listen to Dima, I grow self-conscious. I can see the contour lines of my own limits and limitations. How for reasons of ill-discipline or comfortable habit or lack of self-awareness or distraction I have in some ways diminished or downgraded my own life, and my own contribution to the lives of others.
Those occasions when I’ve declined or ducked leadership either deliberately or indirectly. Those periods where I have settled for second-best, including in my own conduct, because it was simply more convenient. Those times I have not told the truth because it connotated confrontation.
Those moments when I have let my soul settle like sediment rather than stirring it to success and sympathy.
It is too easy to either intentionally or insidiously slip into one’s own comfort zone and not go out. Out of our way for some abiding alternative. Out of our own thinking or behaviours for the service of others – be it the nation or the neighbour. Out on a limb for an unpopular cause or concept. It’s too easy not to choose sides and to simply slide along.
Dima, on the other hand, lives in the contact zone. Where he’s constantly in the face of folks’ suffering. Where he has to fight for what’s right and against what’s wrong – be it for more services for his constituents or a new mentality for his nation. Where he doesn’t necessarily have control of what’s next, but only of his commitment to change.
His t-shirt speaks of change. You can see how Dima’s pursuit of it not only saves other lives, but sustains his own. The contact zone may be confronting and hard on a daily basis, but it is ultimately where kindness is cultivated and sustained. It’s both a junkyard and a garden.
People ask me why I spend time in Ukraine. I go out of my way to say it’s not about nationalism, as it’s not my country. I go out of my way to say it’s where I can perhaps most contribute my professional skills to a human rights agenda I believe in.
But really… It’s that contact zone I seek when I’m here in Ukraine. People like Dima – and my courageous friends Dr Ulana Suprun, the Health Minister, and her husband, Marko Suprun, who runs a life-saving NGO – transport me there with their courage. They put a mirror up to my suburban satisfaction and under-used opportunities for connection, compassion and community.
With their limitlessness. May it never end.