Ukrainian students share their stories with ECU campus

Trigger warning: This article mentions violence and sexual assault. Only the first names of the Ukrainian participants are used in this article.

Each day, glimpses of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine fill television screens and social media feeds with stories of people fleeing, the bravery of those staying behind and the resolve of the Ukrainian people to fight back.

East Carolina University’s Office of Global Affairs hosted an opportunity for students, faculty and staff to hear firsthand from students at Ivan Franko National University (IFNU) in Lviv, Ukraine, how the invasion of their country is affecting them. Students studying abroad at the ECU Tuscany campus in Certaldo Alto, Italy, joined the conversation on March 8.

IFNU is one of ECU’s Global Partners in Education. During a typical semester, IFNU and a class at ECU would connect for conversation and lessons in one of ECU’s global classrooms, as they have since 2015, to learn about culture, language and tradition. Now, that partnership offered an opportunity for the IFNU students and faculty to spread their story to others and for ECU participants to learn more about what is taking place and how to offer help.

An IFNU faculty member wipes away a tear as she talks about the war in her country of Ukraine.

The Ukrainian students’ professor, Nataliaya, became emotional as her students began speaking. “Sorry. I am very emotional right now. It’s been two weeks since I’ve seen many of my students.”

The students from IFNU who joined the video call were spread through the western part of Ukraine which was still stable at the time of the call. Some of Nataliaya’s students have left the country or are in portions currently considered hot spots. They participated in the call with ECU to tell their story and help overcome the misinformation spread by Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and Russian supporters.

The IFNU students were scheduled to begin their semester this month but instead are volunteering to assist with refugees fleeing to the western part of Ukraine, running social media accounts to combat misinformation, and coordinating donations from abroad. The passion the students shared for their country came through as they discussed the unprovoked attack.

“Russia wanted to destroy us, but it only united us. I’m proud to be Ukranian,” said Varyna, a 21-year-old IFNU student who took a break from volunteering with refugees to join the discussion.

Another student, Oleh, mentioned that friends outside Ukraine ask regularly how they can help. Some even ask how they can come fight.

“We will never surrender,” he said.

Jami Leibowitz, director of Global Academic Initiatives at ECU, facilitated the conversation and asked the IFNU students what they wanted ECU students to know about what was taking place.

“The situation is critical,” said Ivan. “Every day the Ukrainian army holds back the Russians. The worst part of this, like any other war, is that children die.”

Several students also wanted Americans to know about the devastation of their cities and the humanitarian crisis, especially in the cities that have been shelled and are experiencing heavy Russian presence.

“We can talk about cities captured or not captured. We can talk about territories seized or not seized, but I want to talk about people and what they’re going through right now because it’s like a horrific torture,” said Dmitri.

Katie Erickson, assistant director of Education in the Office of Global Affairs listens to students from the Ukraine discuss their future.

Dmitri explained that Russia is destroying civilian property and killing individuals who were trying to flee. He said schools, hospitals and residential buildings have been damaged or destroyed. Underground Metro stations in heavily shelled areas have been turned into shelters occupied mainly by women and children. Posters are being made for the shelters to instruct women how to keep themselves and children healthy while underground.

“They have no access to water, to hygiene products. They make posters to help mothers know how to maintain their children underground for such a long time. These children are sitting underground, especially in the heavily shelled cities for weeks,” said Dmitri.

He also said that women have been brutally raped by members of the Russian military. In another example of how civilians are being disregarded, he said Russians recently destroyed a bread factory that was operating to provide basic food for the people in Kyiv.

The students, all in their late teens and early 20s, are facing what was described by their professor as a nightmare.

“We’re not sure if we’ll be alive tomorrow. It’s depressing. I haven’t seen my father for a week because he joined the territorial defense part of our military unit and I have seen my mother crying a lot and we’re going through really difficult times right now. For me, I know we are going to be happy one day but for now, all the plans I’ve been making for the future, for the next week, next month, for the summer, it all doesn’t matter,” said Dmitri.

Dmitri’s outlook was shared by his fellow students. They are focusing on surviving, taking care of their family and fellow Ukrainians, and doing what they can to end the war.

The IFNU students emphasized the importance of the entire world paying attention and doing what they can to stop Russia.

“I’m more than sure that you think this is happening really far away from you, and I understand you. But the world is really globalized and interconnected and the line between — it doesn’t touch me and it doesn’t bother me — the line is very thin,” said Katryna.

She said that if Russia is successful in its invasion of the Ukraine, it will impact the security of the entire world.

ECU participants asked how they can best help, and the overwhelming answer was — share the facts.

Viktoriia, a fourth-year student at IFNU, started an Instagram news account with other students immediately after the invasion began that regularly posts updates and information from the Ukraine.

“Informational war is just as important as the actual, physical war. To spread the correct information will actually help us win the war as soon as possible,” she said.

ECU student Grace Gardner was home in Fayetteville for spring break but chose to drive two hours back to Greenville to hear what the IFNU students had to say.

“I think it’s important as the newer generation and as students to educate ourselves. If we have an opportunity to hear it from the people that are going through it, it can help us to better understand and empathize,” said Gardner, a junior chemistry major.

“The thing that will stick with me the longest is when they said that they are not thinking about the future in the long term, they are thinking about the next two hours and whether or not they’re going to make it through that. Just hearing them say how they want to live,” said Gardner. “As a U.S. citizen that’s always lived in the U.S., I haven’t ever experienced war. I’ve never seen it firsthand.”

Leibowitz said the conversation and actions in Ukraine are personal for her. She has traveled to Lviv and met Nataliya and students at the university and have gotten to know them during ECU and IFNU’s seven-year partnership. She reached out to them after the conflict started to check on their well-being and later offered the opportunity for the students to tell their stories.

ECU Assistant Vice Chancellor for Global Affairs Dr. Jon Rezek said this opportunity for ECU and IFNU to interact was important and highlighted how interconnected the world is and that we should be doing more to learn about the rest of the world and how they live.

“A lot of times it’s easy to get very centered on your own local area or your own regional self,” said Rezek. “The possibilities these students embodied is so uncertain now. Two weeks ago, it was — their futures were set.”

Despite the challenges facing their country, the eight students were very optimistic about Ukraine coming away victorious. They said Russia could take away the buildings but could not take away what it means to its people.

Gardner’s takeaway was echoed by other participants at the event. “Ukraine is strong, they’re not giving up.”