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Wednesday, July 06, 2022

Ukrainian students stand together against invasion happening back home

Students organize demonstrations, spread awareness

Roksolana Myktiuk, 25, a non-degree seeking UF women’s studies exchange student (left) and Sasha Nelson, 19, UF microbiology sophomore lead a group of about 30 in a minute of silence for the Ukrainian lives lost in their ongoing war with Russia on Thursday, March 3.
Roksolana Myktiuk, 25, a non-degree seeking UF women’s studies exchange student (left) and Sasha Nelson, 19, UF microbiology sophomore lead a group of about 30 in a minute of silence for the Ukrainian lives lost in their ongoing war with Russia on Thursday, March 3.

Roksolana Mykytiuk, 25, stood alone at Turlington Plaza Feb. 28. She held a poster: “Stand with Ukraine.” As hundreds of students passed through the mid-campus hub, she noticed a girl with braids intertwined with blue and yellow fabric walking toward her.

Mykytiuk and Sasha Nelson hugged each other, crying for five minutes before uttering a word. 

The conflict in Ukraine has displaced more than 4 million Ukranians and gained worldwide media attention.UF’s Ukrainian students have felt the negative effects of the invasion back home. Their loved ones are under attack and while their community in Gainesville is small, it has brought them closer together. There are only three Ukrainian international students at UF, Mykytiuk said. 

Students like Mykytiuk and Nelson have family and friends living in Ukraine and can only watch as their nation, families and friends suffer through a war. They’ve found solidarity in each other and hope to help their country by spreading awareness. They are sharing fundraising efforts and trying to encourage Americans to become activists in whatever way they can. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin justified the invasion by claiming it was an act of self-defense. The Russian media portrays Ukrainian leadership as anti-Russian and Nazi, claiming that there is a genocide happening against ethnically Russian people in the Donbass region of Ukraine. Putin claims he is protecting Russians in Ukraine, but Ukraine and most of the world say these accusations lack any support.  

East Slavic countries including Russia, Belarus and Ukraine share a common language, culture and are traditionally tight-knit, Michael Gorham, a UF Russian Studies professor, said. 

“The idea of one of their countries invading the other country is virtually unheard of,” Gorham said. “So it's a very difficult time.”

Mykytiuk, a Ukrainian exchange student at UF, wants people to understand that the conflict did not begin recently. It has been going on for eight years; the media is covering it now because it has escalated to a war. 

“Our children are being killed right now,” she said. “Our women are forced to give birth in basements, our grandmothers are suffering, our schools and hospitals have been destroyed.”

She was born and raised in Ukraine and arrived at UF’s campus in January. When the invasion began, she was alone, new to the United States and unable to connect with other Ukrainians. 

This isolation continued until she took her sign and protested in Turlington Plaza, where Mykytiuk met Nelson and Anna Meltsaieva. The trio formed their own club, created an Instagram account and organized a demonstration on March 1 to spread awareness.

“We're hoping to just raise awareness and also collect donations because what's going on right now is really a humanitarian crisis, and people need donations,” Nelson said. “We're trying to do what we can to help our loved ones back in Ukraine.”

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Donations would help families in need, like the Svirskyi family.

Anton Svirskyi, 20, a member of the UF diving team and the Ukrainian Olympic team, was born and raised in Ukraine. His family moved to the U.S. in 2015 to escape the 2014 conflict. 

Some family members returned home two weeks ago to fight. His grandparents are feeding soldiers and volunteers; his uncles are in territorial defense; his friends have been building barricades; and those with large cars are distributing humanitarian aid supplies throughout the country. 

“The Ukrainian people are just coming together and are trying to stop what's happening,” he said.

Svirskyi has been able to continue in classes and athletics but with some difficulty, he said. His fellow Olympic athletes in Ukraine have stopped training.

“I don't think it's fair to them. They didn't start the war, but they're the ones defending,” Svirskyi said. “They had to sacrifice their education and their sports.”

You learn to cherish the people around you because anything can happen, he said. He never thought his friends would have to pick up AK-47s to fight the Russian Army as civilians. People need to realize that it is taking a toll on everybody, he said. 

“Even right now, a week after the invasion has happened,” Svirskyi said. “It sort of feels like a bad dream. I still can't believe it, my family can’t believe it, nobody can believe that this is happening. That this is the new way of life that they have to endure.”

He hopes people in the U.S. will not be ignorant and will realize that every bit helps. His worry is that people get too caught up with hearing two sides of the story.

“A lot of people are hung up on Russia's side of the story,” he said. “But it's all propaganda.”

Anna Meltsaieva, 24, is originally from Donetsk, an industrial city filled with coal mines. She said her hometown has been under occupation for the last eight years. 

She, like thousands of others who did not want to live under the Putin regime, fled the area after 2014. She was only 16. Her family still lives in the Donetsk region, but they are pro-Ukrainian. Her grandma had lived there for 80 years and has lived in her current home for 52 years.

“She said that she would rather die than leave her own house,” Meltsaieva said.

Her brother is the only person in her family that has access to the internet, and even his connection is unreliable. Every day she hopes to get a text message from him. 

Ukrainians living in other countries are limited in the support they can give to their loved ones and country. They are all trying their best to advocate and help efforts to fight back.

She believes most people who live in that area support Russia because of the propaganda that they have been fed. 

She studied in Ukrainian schools with pro-Ukrainian teachers. None of them support Ukraine anymore, she said. They’ve been told for eight years that the Ukrainians have been the ones bombing them. 

A friend of hers, who lives in Russia, called her to ask if the U.S. was bombing Ukraine. She explained that Ukraine was at war with Russia. 

He was in disbelief because that was not at all what he had seen on TV. He believed that Russia was only attacking military bases to stop Ukraine from joining NATO, not bombing civilian areas.

“Even though no one knows what’s going on,” Eltsaieva said, “On TV, whatever is happening, they always blame Ukraine.” 

Iryna Kanishcheva, 40, has a sister who is stuck in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, and cannot cross the bridge to the other side of the city to see her daughter. The roads leading there are all closed.

The Warrington School of Business graduate said the panic in Ukraine reminded her of Floridans preparing for a hurricane. People grab all the food they can find, because they don’t know if there will be any later. 

Family members are hiding in basements every night as alarms ring through the city.

“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “It seems to be surreal.”

She was born in Ukraine and moved to Gainesville nine years ago. Her family still lives in Kyiv and western parts of Ukraine. 

She and another Ukrainian friend went to the demonstration led by Mykytiuk, Nelson and Eltsaieva.

“We’re just like everybody else who are trying to find ways to help,” Kanishcheva said. “Demonstrations are one of the ways we can raise awareness, get attention and show that we are against it.”

Kanishcheva said the only way to stop the war is to be harsh on Russia’s businesses.

One country cannot just easily invade another country while the whole world is looking and doing nothing, she said.

She encourages people not to be silent and to express their opinions. Students can help by posting in support of Ukraine, using hashtags and donating to the several resources available. She urges students to help because “United we have power,” she said. 

Contact Gregorio Ruiz-Perez at Follow him on Twitter @GregRuizPerez1

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