Opportunities to learn: A triumph of light over darkness

On the night of 23 February, Liz Shchepetylnykova was on the phone with a friend discussing meeting for lunch or dinner in a day or two when she and her husband, Vitali Sharlai, returned to Kyiv from Chernivtsi.

They had gone to Sharlai’s parents house in his hometown in south-western Ukraine a week earlier “for the sake of feeling a little bit more calm, so that we could focus on our work”, the PhD student, working on her thesis on post-Soviet higher education through the University of Hong Kong, said in a Zoom call.

Both had found it hard to concentrate in Kyiv, which is only 60 miles (97 km) from the Belarusian border, on the other side of which were 200,000 Russian troops. “It’s in your brain all the time. You cannot escape the thought,” she said.

Shortly after 5.30am on the morning of 24 February, Shchepetylnykova and her husband, a research programme officer responsible for opinion surveys at Ukraine’s’ International Republican Institute Office, were woken by a call from one of her friends in Kyiv.

Shchepetylnykova heard her friend (a new mother, a detail Shchepetylnykova felt so important she said it two different ways) say in an emotion-filled voice something very different from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of a “special military operation” supposedly at the request of the “people’s republics of the Donbas” and justified by Article 51 part 7 of the UN Charter: “Guys, you have to get up and get out, the Russian troops have invaded the country.”

Shchepetylnykova and her husband jumped out of bed, dressed quickly and threw their essentials – including, most importantly, their identity documents – into suitcases. Pausing only to explain to Sharlai’s parents how to care for their beloved cat, they jumped in their car and drove towards the Romanian border 40km away.

Before they reached the border, they had to stop for gas, and even though the invasion was only a few hours old, there were already huge queues at the gas station, said Shchepetylnykova. By the time they reached the Romanian border, the line of cars stretched into the hundreds, many filled with families who, after the Russians bombed airports at Kyiv and other cities, had rented cars and made for the border of this NATO nation.

After a wait of four hours, Shchepetylnykova and Sharlai crossed into Romania, which on the date of this writing has accepted almost 85,000 Ukrainian refugees. Shchepetylnykova was among the first of what she estimates to be tens of thousands of students and professors who have fled their homeland as a result of a war few could have imagined being fought in the heart of Europe in the second year of the second decade of the 21st century.

Targets of the Russian army

Shchepetylnykova and Sharlai left quickly, not only because she did not want to be a burden to the Ukrainian military and consume humanitarian aid, but because she was relatively certain she was on the ‘kill list’, the existence of which the Americans made known on 21 February.

Between 2010 and 2015, when she was a third-year student at KROK University in Kyiv, Shchepetylnykova led the Ukrainian Association of Students.

She worked closely with the government to develop Ukrainian’s current higher education law as well as on the implementation of several TEMPUS programmes (EU-funded programmes that encourage higher education institutions to engage in structured cooperation) and Erasmus+ programmes (EU-funded programmes that fund students in EU countries wishing to study in other EU countries).

A major part of her work included capacity building activities for student activists in Ukraine and other Eastern European countries.

“I feel that people like myself are targets of the Russian army,” she told University World News. “We’re the backbone of civil society. We’re the ones who usually stand up and speak our mind.”

Shchepetylnykova did not have to think of a Cold War thriller to imagine the terror of being held hostage by the Russians. A decade ago, the then 21-year-old spent several anxious hours in the hands of the Belarusian KGB.

The train from Kyiv to Minsk, where she was going to conduct capacity building activities for student activists from around Belarus, stopped, as per schedule, near 3am at the border near the Belarusian town of Teryuha.

“I was awoken by the border control officers. And, when they looked at my passport, they said, ‘You have to pack and get out [of the train]. You are not allowed to enter our country’.”

Shchepetylnykova was led to a small room in the border patrol station and then to a chair in the corner. On her way, she passed a desk with a computer and some papers on it.

After being questioned by a border patrol agent, a succession of KGB people came in and asked her questions in Russian. She answered in flawless Russian, trying all the time to suppress the fear of being in KGB hands. She could tell by their questions that they knew she had been active in the student movement for several years.

As the questions came, she tamped down her fear and considered how lucky she was to be sitting in that chair, in the corner. Behind her, she said, was a “bench behind bars, which I heard about from some of my friends who were deported earlier. One of them was behind those bars for many hours.”

While answering, she tried to stay calm and focused, giving minimal information. “You never know what is on their minds or what they’re going to do,” said the student activist. “Since I was involved with human rights groups, I knew of many cases where people were detained for numerous hours and questioned. When you’re in the control of the Belarus border patrol, it is not a safe environment.”

Shchepetylnykova played her cards well. Nothing she said led the KGB to take her into custody. She was also fortunate. Near 6am, when a suburban train heading to Ukraine came into the station, the KGB bundled her aboard.

When I asked her if she felt particularly vulnerable as a woman in the custody of President Alexander Lukashenko’s security forces, which retains the feared initials, KGB, that date to 1954 and the Soviet Union, she told me that was less important than what has been happening since 2014.

The Russian military supporting the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic and the Donetsk People’s Republic (Luhansk and Donetsk being Ukraine’s two eastern-most provinces) “can be incredibly cruel and that would include physical violence against men and women, particularly women”.

Since her parents, who, until 25 February, lived in the family’s hometown of Starobilsk in Luhansk are now safe somewhere in Europe, Shchepetylnykova could tell me that her mother, a medical professional, had told her “absolutely horrifying” stories of Russian violence against women.

“They can do it [sexual assault] repeatedly and incredibly painfully because they feel that it gives them leverage,” Shchepetylnykova said from the safety of Missouri, where the host family she lived with as an international exchange student has given her shelter. Because of COVID restrictions, she was unable to return to Hong Kong.

A war eight years’ long

Though not a military analyst, Shchepetylnykova had many insightful things to say about the Ukrainian army and her nation’s years’ long battle with Russia. For most people, Ukraine-Russia relations have not been top of mind, she told University World News.

“For many people it feels like everything began on 24 February, but that’s not the case. The war between Russia and Ukraine started back in 2014 when Russia occupied Crimea and started infiltrating weapons to the so-called people’s republics of Luhansk and Donetsk. The Ukrainian military has been fighting Russia for eight years.”

This point has been cited by a number of defence analysts as one of the reasons the Ukrainian army has been able to mount a surprisingly strong defence and destroy a number of Russian tank columns.

Put simply, the Ukrainian army, which still has senior officers who would have been in the Soviet army, and junior officers and ‘other ranks’ who have been in the field against the Russians and Russian-backed irregulars in Luhansk and Donetsk, are familiar with the Russian army’s tactics and the Ukrainians know where the weak points are.

Equally important, Shchepetylnykova stressed, is the way the Ukraine people have mobilised.

It’s not like the 1920s, she said, referencing the Ukrainian War of Independence that ended with the remains of General Symon Petliura’s forces being crushed by the Soviets and the subsequent incorporation of Ukraine into the Soviet Union; the horrors of the famine of 1932-33 engineered by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, which killed four million Ukrainians and is known as the Holodomor, also hung over these eight words: “In 2022, the resistance is 40 million people.”

“What has inspired me the most is the people of the towns and cities that have been taken over by the Russians. These people have come out and demonstrated and, in some cases, stopped Russian [tanks] with their bare hands. They’re the people who are showing the Russian military that even if you take over a city, they’re never going to take over Ukraine.”

While not originally a supporter of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Shchepetylnykova praises the way he has risen to the Russian challenge. The pop culture image of the president as a one-man band (or cartoon superhero, as more than one internet meme has it) is incorrect. Rather, we should look at the media-savvy, articulate and undeniably brave Zelenskyy as a conductor of an orchestra.

“I think it is important to acknowledge that Zelenskyy is standing firmly on the positions of a national movement and a citizenship movement. There’s significant reciprocity between him as a confident leader who pushes forward the Ukrainian agenda and the Ukrainian nation being consolidated horizontally to support him,” she told University World News.

The visual representation of the “horizontal” support, she explained, are demonstrations in Kyiv’s Maidan Square and elsewhere. In terms of the nation’s politics, the horizontal organisation is manifested in the way various leaders of civil society work together, bringing information from local communities, cities and regions up to the national government. Though she did not mention this as an example, her point is exemplified by how local mayors and regional leaders have been integrated into the military organisation.

“This is an incredibly durable architecture,” said an activist used to dealing with government bureaucracy. “We’re all very much aware that even in the worst-case scenario, if the Russians manage to get hold of the Ukrainian government [members] and eliminate them, there are hundreds who will follow. The Russian idea of eliminating governments will not work, it will not stop a resistance.”

Ukrainian students in Canada

At the beginning of our interview, Michaela Yarmol-Matusiak, the inclusion and diversity officer at the Ukrainian Canadian Students’ Union (SUSK), told me about the shock of learning, around midnight on 24 February (Toronto time), that Russia had invaded the country her great-grandparents had left but where she still had ties to family and friends.

In the hours after receiving her sister’s text, “Holy crap, do you see what’s just happened,” Yarmol-Matusiak sat with her parents who had raised their children in the heart of Toronto’s Ukrainian diaspora.

“We sat discussing what we knew for probably a half hour, then an hour, and its 1am, then it’s 2am. We were just sitting there, paralysed. You can’t really sleep. You’re worried. I have friends [in Ukraine] texting me here saying they know people whose homes and families are being bombed right now.”

Yarmol-Matusiak debated staying in Toronto but decided to return to Western University in London, Ontario, where, on 26 February, she began organising SUSK’s response. She told me of three Ukrainian students at Western University for whom their own safety in southwestern Ontario was an added burden.

One could not reach her grandmother, whom she called regularly. After three or four frantic days, she finally got in contact.

Another knew that his parents had managed to flee, but his girlfriend had decided to stay. “He didn’t have contact with her for two days because they were in a bomb shelter.”

The third expressed what sounds like the beginning of survivor’s guilt: “I’m here in this bar being able to have a drink while my girlfriend is stuck in a basement with air raids, alarms and possibly missiles.”

When I asked Yarmol-Matusiak, a 21-year-old, second-year American studies student, how she was coping, she was honest about feeling overwhelmed.

“There’s a lot of anxiety, a lot of despair and heartbreak. It’s difficult because I didn’t live through the Cold War. I didn’t live through the traumatic experiences that my family members and friends and friends of family members lived through. I’ve never had to flee my home.

“In addition to what I see among my friends, I’m seeing friends and extended family members [back in Ukraine] in danger. I’m seeing them watching their ancestral homeland being bombed and flattened. I’m seeing them being traumatised.”

She continued, her voice breaking at times. “When I speak to my mom or an aunt, it’s like, ‘Our people have been through so much.’ The overwhelming feeling is, ‘When can we rest, when can we just exist on our land, in the diaspora, free from aggression?’”

US-based Scholars at Risk

Since arriving in the United States, Shchepetylnykova has been working with the New York-based Scholars at Risk organisation and with several Ukrainian media outlets to share information about what steps Ukrainian scholars need to take if they are looking for opportunities abroad. In addition, she told me, she is working with faculty in Ukraine and in other countries to advocate for remote work opportunities for Ukrainian scholars.

According to Shchepetylnykova, the establishment of online courses is especially important for two groups: the first is what she estimates to be tens of thousands of university students fleeing Ukraine who are now refugees in Romania, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia. Since men between the ages of 18 and 60 have been forbidden to leave Ukraine since 25 February, the vast majority of these refugees are women. The other group is the male university students who remain in Ukraine but are not in the field army.

North American universities which, because of complex immigration requirements, cannot now be reached by most refugees, should, Shchepetylnykova said, leverage the experience gained from putting courses online because of the COVID-19 pandemic and establish online courses for refugees and men who remain in Ukraine.

“We should be looking at ways to keep students engaged remotely with institutions worldwide,” she said.

“We have to save the Ukrainian nation, and saving the Ukrainian nation does not mean only saving the land. It means saving people, saving their minds and their future. If we give students and faculty [and other refugees] opportunities to learn, we’ve got people who are also able to come back and rebuild once the war is over.”

Even though Ukrainian scholars have since 2014 had to pass an English language test, Shchepetylnykova noted that many are not ready for university level work in English. Accordingly, she said, Ukrainian scholar refugees need opportunities in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Bulgaria.

“These Slavic languages are very close to Ukrainian. And for people who lack English or other European language skills, it will be easier for them to adapt to working in another Slavic language environment.”

For students who do not have their transcripts, one solution could be for universities to accept (as New York University Abu Dhabi does) the national school-leaving test all high school graduates in Ukraine must take, Shchepetylnykova suggested. At present there is still access to this database. Alternatively, universities can create department-specific exams.

The decentralised nature of the college and university sectors in both the United States and Canada make it impossible to generalise about what colleges and universities are doing to accommodate displaced students and faculty.

In the United States, which has some 4,000 accredited institutions, a number of universities, including University of California Berkeley, Stanford University, Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, Maryland), Columbia University (New York), Brown University (Providence, Rhode Island) and Tufts University (Massachusetts), have announced that they will be opening positions to professors and enrolling student refugees.

The University of California, Irvine has launched a crowdfunding campaign to bring two or three Ukrainian professors and their families to their campus 40 miles south of Los Angeles. In Canada, the University of Northern British Columbia and McGill University in Montreal and others have opened paid positions for Ukrainian scholars and students.

The process of getting a refugee professor or student onto a North American campus is complicated. Many refugee students, said Shchepetylnykova, lack documentation, such as transcripts, needed to apply to universities and colleges. For these students, Shchepetylnykova also suggested using the Ukrainian national school-leaving test and said departments could create entrance exams. Professors with research profiles on Google Scholar could use them to attest to their status.

A more important hurdle is the immigration systems in Canada and the United States respectively. The Canadian government was quick to announce increased financial aid for Ukrainians studying in Canada and changes to both family reunification rules and the extension of student visas and work permits as well as the opening of new immigration offices in a number of countries. However, immigration to Canada is not visa-less.

The absence of the usual biometric data and documentation, such as birth certificates and police reports, complicates the visa application process. Yarmol-Matusiak and other senior members of SUSK have met with various ministries to try to find a way around this problem.

On Thursday 10 March, speaking in Warsaw, Poland, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged CA$117 million (US$92 million) to expedite immigration applications from Ukrainian refugees.

Movement of refugee students and faculty to the United States is also going to be a slow process. Like Canada, the United States does not have visa-less entry. Refugee students and faculty wishing to go to the United States require an I-20 (Certificate of Eligibility for Non-immigrant Student Status) form issued by an American college or university.

With I-20 in hand, “they would need to apply for their visas at the nearest US embassy or consulate. If they are physically present in Ukraine, this would mean travelling to a neighbouring country. Displaced students should contact their nearest US embassy or consulate as soon as possible to get more information on the process of applying for a visa,” said Katherine Scodova, EducationUSA regional educational advising coordinator for Europe and Eurasia.

Psychological support for Ukrainian students

SUSK and its 25 constituent Canadian colleges and universities have established programmes to provide legal aid to those who need it to navigate the new visa rules in Canada and to help students who require academic accommodations necessitated by their dealing with the trauma of the war and time lost trying to help their families in Ukraine, or if they are refugees.

Both Yarmol-Matusiak and Shchepetylnykova stressed the importance of providing Ukrainian students, both those already in North America and those who will arrive, with psychological support.

According to Yarmol-Matusiak, there is no one model for providing psychological support. In Victoria in British Columbia and Hamilton and Toronto in Ontario, for example, organisations outside the universities have banded together to provide psychological services and spaces where Ukrainians can meet.

Shchepetylnykova said it was important to get students back into the classroom. Not only would that help them meet local people and get acquainted with the community they might be living in, but being in a classroom would help support their mental health.

“Something that is ignored is that when you are fleeing [for safety], one of the key issues is mental health,” she said. “For many people who have fled Ukraine, the pressure on mental health is coming from the fact that the people are in this context of scrolling the news and looking at what atrocities are happening.

“But for people to sustain their mental health, they need to have other things to think about. For students, it’s getting them back in the classroom, to integrate them into the community, which is helping to provide them with a chance for some kind of a future.”

Life wins over death, light over darkness

At the end of my interview with Shchepetylnykova, I asked whether Zelenskyy’s words are as powerful in Ukrainian as they are in English.

Because of my background as an English professor, I had in mind his address to the British House of Commons when he answered Hamlet’s famous question (To be or not to be?) by announcing: “I can give you a definitive answer. It’s definitely yes, to be”, before making Winston Churchill’s 4 June speech his own: “We will fight until the end, at sea, in the air. We will continue fighting for our land, whatever the cost.”

Yet, Shchepetylnykova had other words in mind, those that appeared in Cyrillic, the alphabet of Ukrainian, on the cover of Time Magazine of 2 March: “Life will win over death, and light will win over darkness.”

For a moment I wondered whether Shchepetylnykova was going to point out how the first phrase encapsulates the teleology of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (and that of every Christian church): at the end of days, everlasting life wins over death. But she focused on the second phrase, “and the light will win over darkness,” and gave me a short lesson in translation.

“In Ukrainian it’s even more powerful because the word for ‘light’ is the same word we use for ‘the world’. When we read it in Ukrainian, it means both ‘the light’ and ‘the world’. We understand that the civilised world is ‘the light’. And it is this light that is defeating the darkness that is Russia.”