Back to Romaniv- Finally!

Yesterday I finally returned to Romaniv. It had been at least 7 months since I was there last and it felt like a bit of a homecoming, to be honest. Grant and I were talking about it on the way home. He said it felt strange that he felt so comfortable there. I mean, we all know that Romaniv isn’t a “comfy” place to be, but I know what he meant. It’s a comfortable place for us because it’s exactly the right place for us to be in this time and space. Romaniv, the boys there, and other people like them, stuck in institutions out in the middle of nowhere are the reason we are here. God plucked us out of our cozy American lives and plopped us down here in Ukraine, at this time, for those boys and others like them. Knowing you are in the exact place where you are meant to be is a wonderful feeling, even if that place is terrible and smelly and unjust and sad. There’s just a comfort in knowing “This is my place. These are my people.”

When Jed and I first moved to Ukraine almost 9 years ago, we knew nothing. We had no language, only a couple of acquaintances, and everything was completely foreign. Banking, shopping, transportation, communication, school, church…we knew nothing about any of it. I felt like our apartment was a little American island. Every time I exited the building I was entering another universe, and I was destined to fail in that new universe. I made mistakes all.the.time. I still do, but they’re less of a big deal these days, or maybe I’m just used to it by now 😂. I would get heart palpitations just thinking about having to approach a stranger. My perfectionistic tendency to only speak when I was confident I was saying something correctly made me a silent bystander instead of an active member of society. The only places I felt like myself was at home and then with our boys at Romaniv. Sigh, “These are my people.”

Our boys don’t have impossible expectations of us that we’ll never be able to meet. I imagine their thoughts, “Just be with me. Sit with me and hold my hand.”

Our boys don’t care if we make mistakes with the language. “Call me by my name and tell me you love me.”

Our boys don’t hold a grudge if we’ve been gone from them for seven months. “You came back! I was waiting for you!”

Our boys love us just because we are. Our relationships have been built over years and years of just being together. Not accomplishing anything that the world values, but just sitting together, singing together, being present with each other. The friendship our boys offer us is a massive gift and one I am truly thankful for today.

The Dim Hidnosti team is returning to our rhythm of spending Thursdays with our boys and I’m so glad. They need us and we need them. They ground us. They remind us of our purpose here and of what’s truly important. Lucky us, to have friends like them.

Vitya, Sasha, and Kolya (photo by Grant ☺️)

If you are new to this community you might now know much about our boys at Romaniv. Romaniv is the institution where all of the boys in our family used to live. I have written about it a lot over the years here on the blog. I’m planning to do a podcast episode about Romaniv, so if you have questions about the place, the boys there, or our work there go ahead and ask! I’ll do my best to answer.

BeLOVE[d]

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Back to School, 2022

Thursday was the first day of school for schools all across Ukraine. September 1st is the traditional start date each year and is called “The Day of Knowledge”. Classes don’t really begin until the 2nd, because the 1st is a ceremonial day. All schools have a “First Bell” ceremony to mark the beginning of the school year. At the First Bell ceremony there are always different speakers and songs, and a parade of first graders who are just starting out on their school journey. There is always the Ukrainian flag and the national anthem. Everyone dresses up fancy, kids give flowers to their teachers, and reunite with their classmates.

The First Bell is sometimes interesting, sometimes boring 😉, but always meaningful. It’s a special day and this year it was especially special and meaningful because a couple months ago we weren’t even sure it would be happening at all. In fact, for many Ukrainian schools across the country it didn’t happen. We are among the most fortunate and I’m so thankful for that.

After lots of back and forth, praying and thinking, we decided to go ahead and put our three youngest kids back into school. Hava is in 7th class, Seth in 6th, and Evie is in the preschool. The past 6 months have been so tumultuous. Our whole lives were turned upside down, inside out, and back again. Our kids have been incredibly brave and we are really proud of them, yet we also see the effects the war has had on them. They just really, really need stability right now and some sort of normalcy. After COVID and then the beginning of the war right when things were feeling quite normal again, they need the comfort of waking up each morning and heading to school. They need interaction with teachers and time with their friends. They need to keep growing in their Ukrainian, and they need to not be sitting in front of a computer screen every single day. I just can’t with the distance learning. It does not work well for our family. 😂 The main thing is that we just have to keep living. The war has stolen so much from all of us. When there is an opportunity to live “normal” life we have to grab hold and run with it. So, on Thursday we went to the First Bell ceremony, and yesterday they began classes. Here we go! School is back in session.

In order for a school in Ukraine to be open for students to study in person it must first, exist at all, and second, it must have a bomb shelter in good repair, approved by the local board of education. The Kyiv Independent reported “As of Sept. 1, Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said that at least 2,405 educational institutions including schools have been damaged or destroyed by Russia’s brutal war. According to the official, at least 270 of them have been completely destroyed. ” So many children are without schools, and even if they do have a school that is open, many parents are afraid to place their kids in school, unsure if their children will be safe, or if their school will also become a target of Russian aggression. Many of our kids’ best friends are still in Europe somewhere: Poland or Italy or Germany. I wonder if they will come back someday or if they will become just a memory in our children’s childhood. Seth is sad he never got to say goodbye. The classes at school are so small, but there is a special camaraderie amongst the parents who have chosen to be here in Ukraine and have chosen to put our kids in school. It feels like a defiance of sorts- Russia will not steal this from our children today. I feel resolute about the decision, but we’ll see how I feel when the first air raid siren goes off and I know my kids are down in the school bomb shelter. Will I be confident in our decision then? I hope so. We just have to trust that God is leading us and giving us wisdom. It’s definitely not an easy time to be a parent in Ukraine, to put it lightly.

Thursday was our family’s 8th First Bell ceremony here in Ukraine. It felt oddly normal, but there were also a lot of differences and if I paused to really think about them it was a little like “I can’t believe this is my life…” Like the moment when we toured the bomb shelter and discussed how many minutes it would take for a missile to strike from Belarus versus how many minutes it would take for all the kids to get from their classrooms to the shelters. Or the moment when we discussed what should be kept in the shelter for each child (a backpack with water, any prescription meds, nonperishable snacks, a card with the child’s name, birthdate, parents’ names and phone numbers). There is a public school nearby our little Catholic school and they don’t have a bomb shelter, so their first through fourth graders will meet in our school building as well. Two schools will be using one building- that should make for an interesting time…ha! There’s just nothing simple about any of this and everyone is just taking things one day at a time. Yesterday the kids were at school and hopefully, they will be on Monday too, but nothing is a given. War is unpredictable.

Hava’s class, minus one more boy 🙂 I didn’t get a pic of Seth’s class!
Evie, so happy to be back at preschool

We are just super thankful that our kids have the opportunity to be in school. A few months ago that reality seemed unimaginable. Please pray for their safety and for the safety of children all over Ukraine. A whole generation is being shaped and formed during this time of war. I pray that they are formed into people who love justice, who see the value of human life, whose hearts are turned toward the Lord, and who will fight to make their country a better place.

Read this article from the Kyiv Independent to learn more about what returning to school looks like all over Ukraine: https://kyivindependent.com/national/children-go-back-to-school-as-russias-war-rages-on

Below is a video of our school’s First Bell ceremony. Of course, it’s in Ukrainian, but maybe you might find it interesting? 😊

BeLOVE[d]

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Saturday, 8/20/22

I don’t have a witty title today. Not that my other blog titles have been necessarily “witty”, but today I just have no thoughts of what to name this post. My mind is racing, my heart is hurting. Russia has waged a war of nightmare and terror on Ukraine for nearly 6 months now and they appear to have no intention of stopping any time soon. They bomb people’s homes, schools, kindergartens, hospitals, city centers. They rape, pillage and torture- like Vikings of old. They threaten the safety of an entire continent by using a nuclear power plant as a shield. They are trying to exterminate an entire nation, an entire culture, and the world grows weary of watching. Some even dare to say this war isn’t even really happening. While Ukrainians lay down their lives to protect the freedom of the Western world, Russians cry because they might not get to vacation in their beloved European resorts anymore. What.Is.Happening. Is this really the year 2022? Is the world really letting this continue? What.Is.Happening.

The other day we went to our kids’ school to register them for the upcoming school year. We drove down the usually quiet road in the forest and were surprised to see loads of Ukrainian soldiers on the premises. Apparently the empty building right next to our little school in the forest has been turned into a military facility…which means our kids will no longer be able to attend school. Our plan for them to be secluded and safe in the forest doesn’t really apply now. A few days later we returned to the school to discuss distance learning options and I had a moment of weakness. “Come on Jed, maybe we should just send them to school. The chances of anything significant happening here are low…” We went to a cafe in town to think and talk about it and heard a lot of airplane activity overhead. One does not simply ‘hear an airplane’ in Ukraine anymore. Any sound of an airplane means all heads are up, all eyes are fixed on the sky, all hearts beat a little faster. The sound of an airplane is the sound of terror these days. We tried to ignore the sounds and kept our discussion about school. An hour later we were at home and heard two big explosions. Something in town had definitely been struck. Never mind. The kids won’t be going to school anytime soon. Russia steals everything.

Air raid sirens are a daily occurrence here. There have been 4 just today, and it’s still only late afternoon. We hear them out in the village only when it’s very quiet at night and we’re standing in our backyard. They tell us the latest rockets strikes were launched from Belarus- our not-so-friendly neighbors to the north. No thank you very much. We tell the kids to go to a safe place when they are in town and they hear the sirens. I hope they do. Sometimes I can’t believe the conversations we have with our kids; conversations about air raid sirens, where to find the closest bomb shelter, if the sound we just heard was the rock quarry down the road or a missile strike, a sports car speeding down the highway or the roar of a jet. They are brave. They were brave before, but war has made them even more so. It changes us all- in good ways, and in ways I’m not ready to talk about yet. One thing is certain: war definitely changes a person.

Ukrainian Independence Day is August 24th and everyone looks ahead to this week with trepidation. Surely Russia doesn’t plan to let that day pass quietly. Russia is a terrorist state and it seems like they will want to mark that day in their own special way. We will celebrate quietly at home. I remember the Independence Day we spent once in Lviv. It was beautiful. Who could have imagined what was to come? Ukraine deserves its independence just like every other country. Ukrainians deserve to celebrate without fear and without a foreign power occupying their lands and decimating their cities. Ukraine deserves to be free from Russia and if other countries want to stay free they better step in and make sure Ukraine wins this terrible war.

My cousin married a wonderful man, Misha, who is a proud Ukrainian. He recently wrote this truth (the words in bold are mine):

“Let me explain really quick what would happen if Ukraine will not win this war.
Major part of central Ukraine, east, north, and south will be occupied. Russia will become bigger, more aggressive, their borders as well as appetite will expand.
Immediately, all the people on occupied territories will go through filtration camps (This is already happening in occupied areas), where they will be checked how Ukrainian they are. Any past cooperation with ZSU (Ukrainian military), any man with patriotic pro Ukrainian position, any former rear guard volunteers, as we are, – will be prosecuted. People will be sentenced to death, sent with their families to Siberia or just disappear. Russia knows how to do that very well.
At the same time, in their apartments will move another families from poorest and remote parts of Russia, bringing famous
Russian culture’, terror and aggression. Women will work as a teachers of their language and literature, men will be KGB workers, searching for Ukrainian patriots, hating all the locals, but taking their goods. That’s how my my grandma’s family from Siberia appeared far west in Transcarpathia in early 50’s.
During the first years Russia will establish pro-Russian managers in every governmental facility, every school, every public place, police and post office. Ukrainian culture will be suppressed and if that happens long enough – will become extinct, we might be the last generation of the native speakers.
This is the cyclical nature of Russian invasion known for centuries. They always wanted to go west to occupy reacher territories. My grandparents’ generation suffered from that, my parents’ generation lived as a part of regime as well as me, so let’s stop them now so the kids would live free, being who they are – Ukrainians.
Please help as protect our little peaceful nation. We would never raise a weapon if not to defend our people.
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I have recently been brushing up on some of Ukraine’s history and what Misha wrote is 100% how things will go if Ukraine doesn’t win this war. This is what Russia does. This is what can not happen.

So we pray, we mourn, we have days of hope and days of fear. Most days are “normal”. We continue to love our children, our boys, and our team. We celebrate together and try to remember to enjoy the little things: the way the goats nuzzle us like cats, Anton pedaling a bike, the plums from our trees, Sasha singing a new tune that we all recognize, homemade bread, being home and cozy nights with the sound of rain on the roof. When the underlying tension of war comes to the surface we try to remember to give our cares to Jesus. Only He can help.

Please, I beg you, don’t forget Ukraine. I know there are so many things to care about in this world, so many tragedies, so many stories on the news. But I still ask you to remember Ukraine, to pray for Ukraine, to elevate Ukrainian voices and the Ukrainian perspective. We would really appreciate it so much.

Independence Day, 2014

On Going Home

Why would refugees decide to return home to a war zone? It’s a good question that I myself would have probably asked just a year ago. Now we are those refugees returning home to a war zone and it feels like the most obvious thing to do. It feels like the thing that makes sense. It feels right. It’s time. Yes, we and our team have decided to return to our home in Ukraine. Our Board of Directors is in agreement and have voted to that end.

There are so many reasons why people who have fled from war choose to return and I can’t pretend to know the mind and heart of every refugee. I can only speak for myself and the people closest to me. We have rehashed this a bazillion and one times and there are many reasons why we could stay in Germany, but there are so many more reasons why we should go home. We are blessed beyond measure that we even have a home to which we can return. When we left I wasn’t sure it would be the case. But as of today, our home still stands and awaits our return. We’ve explained here on the blog and in recent Youtube videos why life here in Germany has become unsustainable for our group, but that is not the only reason we have decided to leave. I know that returning isn’t the right decision for everyone, but it is the right decision for us, so I thought I would try to explain it to you.

Regardless of War, Home is Home. We have lived in Ukraine for coming up on nine years. Our children consider Ukraine their home in every sense of the word. As a family, we don’t really belong in the US anymore. Jed and I can feel more at home there than our kids because we both lived there for more than 30 years, but still, every time we return it feels more and more foreign. We moved to Ukraine when Obama was still president! So much has changed in the US, but also so much has changed in us. We are not the same people who left Portland, OR with 9 suitcases all those years ago. (For one thing, now Jed has less hair and I have gray hair…😅)

Our little piece of the world, the Homestead, is the only place on earth where our family truly feels at home. We have lived a hundred lives in Ukraine, brought Ukrainians into our family, our kids call themselves Ukrainians, yet we know we will never truly be Ukrainian. Those closest to us, our team, don’t see us as “The Americans”. We are simply their family. But I know other Ukrainians don’t see us that way. There have been so many times here in Germany when I have been out and about in town and have heard Ukrainians around me. I always wanted to walk up to them, to talk with them, to feel that closeness with them, but the few times I tried they were only confused. Why was this American acting like she was one of them? Like she understood their plight? We will never be Ukrainians, but we don’t feel much like Americans. Yes, I know, heaven is our home. But here on earth, our plot of land in our village in Ukraine is our home, and we desperately want to be there again. It is where we are known, where we are understood, and where we are accepted as one of the family. We simply want to be home.

We Want to Stand With Our Country. I know there is such a thing as compassion fatigue and that it is real. There is only so much one person can actively care about day in and day out. I know the attention span of the world is incredibly short and Ukraine’s moment in the spotlight has just about run its course. But while the rest of the world can move along to the next big thing, while most people have the luxury of putting their phone down or simply turning off the tv and forgetting for a while, we don’t have that luxury. Every hour of every day we are thinking about Ukraine and the war. It is all-consuming. But we live in a country where life moves on like normal. That is no slam on Germany! Of course, life moves on. My life has always moved on regardless of wars happening in other countries. I get it. But now our lives don’t get to move on. We go through the motions and watch the seasons change, but our hearts and minds are stuck on February 24th- the day when the world fell apart. We don’t want to be in a world where life goes on like normal and we are mute spectators with our feet stuck in the muddy mess of things. We want to be in a place where we are standing strong in solidarity with others. We want to be in a place where people understand. We want to show up for our country.

The Work Must Continue. The vision of Wide Awake International is to bring hope, love, and dignity to people with disabilities in Ukraine. That vision is lived out through deinstitutionalization. Guys, we have to get back to work. The need for this work didn’t stop because Putin decided to invade. The plight of people with disabilities who are wasting away in institutions hasn’t changed or gone away simply because it has become less safe for us to go to them. The reality is actually quite the opposite. Our boys at Romaniv and others like them need rescuing now more than ever. Our work has always been a frontline work and now is a frontline time. We must not retreat. Ukraine needs helpers and our team is full of them. There is no way for us to continue our mission while in Germany. Yes, we brought Yaroslav and Vova out of Romaniv to us in Germany, but that is the limit of what we can do from here. We simply must get back to work in Ukraine. There is no other way. This is hands-on, boots-on-the-ground work, and our boys can not wait alone for the war to end. We must go to them. While the eyes of the world are on Ukraine and while more people are becoming disabled each day we have to be in there, helping, advising, lending experience. We feel the urgency in our bones. This is what we were created for and the work must go on.

Our Goal is Not to Stay Alive. A dear friend reminded me recently of an important truth: “Our greatest goal in life is not just to stay alive.” If our goal is to keep our bodies alive, then we will all eventually fail because every one of us will eventually die. Our goal is not just to stay alive, but to LIVE. Yes, here in Germany our bodies are safe and they are alive. But in a way, we are not truly living. And while we are here not doing the things we are passionate about it feels like we are slowly withering away. Of course, there have been many beautiful, precious, wonderful moments in Germany. We have lived here, but we have not lived to the fullest. It’s like we’ve been stuck in a waiting room. Waiting for the next meal or the next news story or the next distraction. We have been busy caring for our boys, but we know we can do so much more. Our spirits are so much more alive when we are fulfilling our mission, when we are creating something beautiful together, when there is redemption and light moving into dark places. Of course, it goes without saying that we don’t desire death. I don’t want to die anytime soon and I don’t want that for any of my loved ones. But keeping our bodies alive is not the highest goal. Because at one time or another we will all die. In the meantime, let us be doing the things we love.

“If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things —praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (any microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”

– C.S. Lewis Present Concerns

We would really appreciate so much your prayers as we make the move back to Ukraine. So many of you absolutely flooded the heavens with prayers as we were leaving Ukraine and since we’ve been in Germany. We are very, very thankful. Thank you for standing behind us. I know not all of you will understand this decision to leave physical safety and return to Ukraine, but I hope you will stick with us on the journey home. We are excited to get back to work in Ukraine. Your encouragement and support mean a lot to us, even though we can’t always reply to each one of you individually. This community is truly the best.

If you would like more details about our decision-making process, please feel free to check out these notes from our board chairman. For those of you who like details, it might help you understand how we and our board reached this decision.

Love to you, dear friends. Thank you for trusting us and loving us through this time.

BeLOVE[d]

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Three Months of War: On My Mind

Caution: Stream of consciousness post ahead. This is my brain vomiting into my computer. Read at your own risk. 😊

I’ve always liked old churches. I like to imagine people worshipping there over the centuries. I like to think about the people who built them and the incredible imaginations and skill they had. These days I think more about the function of the old churches in times of war. Churches have been places of sanctuary, where thousands of ordinary people over thousands of years have cried out to God for protection, for peace, for wisdom, for a way out. 

Yesterday I sat in an old stone church in a European village and I felt the most at home I’ve felt since leaving our little Ukrainian village three months ago. That little church was no stranger to grief, to war, to pain. My prayers joined the prayers of villagers from the time of Napoleon’s invasion, from the days of the Great War and World War II. My prayers of “Why us? Why our country?” and “God, how can you let this happen?” were not the first of their kind uttered in that place, and sadly, won’t be the last. As I sat in the stillness and the quiet I considered the centuries of war all over the world and how war has always been. After the garden, there has not been a moment in time when the world was absent of war. Somewhere someone is always suffering at the hand of war. I just never imagined that someone would be me and my family, my boys. I never in a million years imagined my children would be refugees from a brutal and devastating war. I never dreamed the sound of an airplane overhead would be, to them, the sound of fear and trauma. But why should we be the exceptions?  Why shouldn’t it be us?  In a world full of evil men with imperial ambitions, why should we be immune from the reality that men will always be at war?  Before Putin started encircling our beloved Ukraine with his troops war was always something that happened “over there” to “those people”.  We never considered the possibility that it would be right here and happening to our people – to us! But it has happened and it has changed our lives in every possible way. Our life has become the stuff of nightmares or the stuff of movies. You pick. 

As I sat in the cool of that little stone church, enveloped in the prayers of saints past I felt a tremendous solidarity with the human story. I felt a kinship with refugees all over the world who are clawing their path forward in a new life they would have never chosen. I felt unity of heart with the mothers all through history who have crouched in the dark with their children, covering them with their bodies as the enemy flew overhead, bent on destroying all they held dear. I felt a oneness with all the saints who have cried out to God to have mercy and to deliver them from their enemies. 

I am that clawing refugee. I am that crouching mother. I am that pleading saint. Come Lord Jesus. Save our land. 

These days I think we should just go home. The longing for Ukraine is something solid in the pit of my stomach. The longing for home. The longing for what was. The longing to be understood, to be able to make my own way, to be in a place that makes sense, a place where we are moving forward, building something beautiful together. 

In Germany our bodies are safe, but that is all. We don’t understand and we are not understood. We can’t make our own way but are at the mercy of bureaucracy and the kindness of others. We are in a holding pattern where nothing makes sense. We aren’t moving forward, building something beautiful together. We just are. We are frozen in place- uprooted and undecided. To move forward here would require a massive investment of time and energy- for what?  To build a life in a place where we don’t intend to stay?  So we stay on the fringes of society. Here, but not here. Home is always in the front of our minds. 

But what do you do when your world has been taken from you?  How do you choose next steps when the enemy is as unpredictable as Russia?  Do you stay away, in a holding pattern, hoping against all hope that this ends quickly? Or do you risk it and just go home because no other life makes sense?   

No decision feels right and I’m so angry at Russia for forcing this impossible decision on mothers like me. 

I remember when the biggest mothering decision I had to make was whether to let my baby cry it out or not.  Pacifier or no?  Do we give sugar before the first birthday?  Screen time before age 3? Public or private school?  From the small to the big, all those decisions now feel as simple as pie. Cuddle that baby. You 100% can not spoil a baby. But if sometimes, for your sanity, you need to let the baby cry and go eat some ice cream? No harm done. Sure, give your baby a pacifier if they like it. They won’t suck on it forever. 🤷‍♀️ Give your baby a cupcake. It’s hilarious to watch them eat it and they will be so happy and messy. If you have just one baby it’s easy to keep them off the screens, but if you have more and the baby watches a movie with their big brothers and sisters it’ll be fine.  All in moderation. Cartoons can be an amazing tool when wielded wisely.  Private or public school?  As long as your kids know you love them and are in their corner, any kind of school will be okay at the end of the day. The goal is to create lifelong learners and that happens mostly at home anyway.

I would give just about anything to be wrestling with those decisions now. These days I think about if it’s possible for us to go home and if my children will be safe there. There is no future for them in Germany so I know we can’t stay here, but are they too traumatized to go back to Zhytomyr?  What will they think of a childhood filled with the sounds of air raid sirens?  And what does it mean if they become accustomed to the sound?  You do all you can to protect your children from the evils of the world, but sometimes that evil comes too close to home and all you can do is try to help them live through it with their eyes on Jesus. My body can’t shield them from the reality that their beloved home is at war. But maybe they don’t need that shield from reality. Maybe they just need to be able to learn to move through it with bravery, with courage, and with their hearts set on Jesus, their shepherd and protector. Many of you have written and told us “Just go home” but I don’t think you understand that this a question that can never be answered with a “just” at the beginning of the sentence. There is no such thing as “Just stay in Germany” or “Just go home”. To stay in Germany means unwillingly giving up all that is dear to us- giving up our dreams. But to “just go home” means willingly moving our children to a war zone. One of those answers is right for us, but neither of them are “just”. They both come with a lot of baggage. War is never simple.

This week we will make a decision, to stay or to go. We are out of options here, so I think the decision is becoming more and more clear. Now we just need the courage to make it and to not turn back.

 

BeLOVE[d]

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