From conflict to campus: Ukrainian students discuss remaining hopeful and dealing with guilt abroad, two years on from Russia’s full-scale invasion

19/02/2024

“I never imagined that we would speak about a second-year anniversary”: York’s Ukrainian student community reflect on the past two years

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Image by Mariya Kuzmenko [Image of Vika, Ira and Mariya from left to right]

By Alanah Hammond

Saturday 24 February marks the second-year anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a genocidal war which has killed thousands of citizens. Millions have fled Ukraine as refugees to surrounding countries such as Poland but also further afield, including the United Kingdom.

The University of York has a small but tightly-knit community of Ukrainian students, all with different experiences of how and why they left their homeland. Some have been in British education for many years, but others are experiencing it for the first time on scholarships created because of the invasion.

One year ago, Ukrainian scholarship student Vitalina Shevchenko founded the University of York’s Ukrainian society. I interviewed Vitalina about her achievement, and we reflected on her journey to York. It does not feel like a year has passed since this conversation, yet Vitalina has now graduated and has been living in Ukraine for the past two months.

This week I met with Vitalina and her friends – Ira Lebega, Vika Skirak and Mariya Kuzmenko – to discuss the anniversary.

After reminiscing on our conversations from a year ago, Vitalina said “I never actually imagined that we would speak about a second-year anniversary. I thought that in 2024, on the 24th of February, we would be like ‘Oh, remember that? Two years ago, the full-scale invasion started… but meanwhile it would have already finished. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened”.

Vitalina continued, “I would never have imagined that we would face this date. I think for every Ukrainian person the anniversary of the full-scale invasion is a difficult day mentally. You go back and remember how things started, your feelings, and how some of us had to flee from our city or even country.

Vika is from Ternopil, situated in the west of Ukraine, and studies International Relations at the University of York. Vika explained her approach to the upcoming anniversary, “I think it’s my way of dealing with stuff, but I just don't think a lot about it before. I think I’ll feel a lot of emotions on the day, but I just try not to think much about it. It’s going to be a hard day”.

Mariya Kuzmenko is from Zaporizhzhia, in south-eastern Ukraine. Mariya studies Economics and Finance at the University of York.

Mariya said, “It's tough that it’s been two years, but we just have to accept the fact and do our best”.

She added, “It does seem like it's been two years now, it's quite interesting. The perception of time changes a bit because you just kind of get used to it. But I've just been back home – it feels much heavier when you’re there because obviously people have been living in Ukraine for the past two years and have got used to the war. But when you’re there it's a bit like, how is this still happening?”

Ira is from Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. Ira studied medicine in Ukraine for two years at the National Medical University of BogomoletsIra but had to stop her studies at the start of the full-scale invasion. Ira took a gap year and re-started her studies at the University of York in Biomedical Sciences in 2022.

Ira described how she was remaining hopeful for the approaching second-year anniversary. “A lot of things have changed since [the first anniversary] but we're not losing hope and we still know that at some point we’re going to win”.

Living abroad in York and enjoying university while the full-scale invasion continues in Ukraine has left both Vitalina and Vika experiencing feelings of guilt.

Being in York for the week of her graduation, Vitalina explained “You are always thinking about your own country even when you're abroad. Since everybody has their relatives back home in Ukraine, you cannot just be okay… like I'm here in the UK, living my best life and they are there”.

Vika explained that she was back home only recently, at the end of January. “My city, Ternpoil, can't really relate to what's going on in the east because it's closer to Poland – I think my city is one of the safest in Ukraine. We don't experience a lot of air raid sirens… people live normal lives there”.

Vika continued, “I see a very different Ukraine when I go home, and I live and study abroad, so it then just makes you feel guilty ”.

Vitalina has been back home in Kharkiv, in northeastern Ukraine, for the past two months. Vitalina described, “Even though I was always reading the news and my parents were giving me weekly updates about how dangerous or safe it was, being in Kharkiv in-person just doesn’t feel the same”.

“In the past two months, there have been a few attacks. Sometimes the alarm goes crazy – during the day, it can go off up to five times and every time you need to go to the shelter. So, obviously it's more dangerous but also more difficult to just keep living your life.”

In Kharkiv, Vitalina explained that the local government has released plans to build new underground schools for children. With the full-scale invasion, Vitalina explained “unfortunately children and students in the east of Ukraine do not have the luxury of having in-person education”.

Such news is bitter-sweet for Vitalina. She explained, “I’m very happy because finally I'm really realising that my brother will be able to continue his education in-person but also, it's just a reminder that no one knows when the war will finish… it’s already been two years. It’s just a reminder that the war has not finished as fast as we wanted it to.”

Mariya explained that her city, Zaporizhzhia, is a kind of hub for refugees from the east. She described how her family, living in Ukraine, are feeling about the anniversary: “Just because they are so used to it at this point, they don't really think of it as such a massive milestone since there’s a lot of things happening right now.

She continued, “People are definitely tired of everything that's going on. They’re just trying to do their best to keep going and keep living".