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Invasion, and subsequent humanitarian crisis, has Ukrainian students on tenterhooks

by Chuck Gordon

While the eyes of the world are trained on Ukraine after the invasion by Russia a week ago, a pair of Wingate University students are monitoring the situation more intensely than most.

Viacheslav Ohnov, a junior from Ukraine, has to turn his smartphone over on the table when he’s trying to concentrate on something else, the screen lighting up every minute or so with news alerts and text messages from his mother. “We text each other all the time,” he says. “It’s basically all I do right now.”

Viacheslav Ohnov headshot

Ohnov’s family is in Kropyvnytskyi, midway between Kyiv and Odessa. A city of 280,000, Kropyvnytskyi is not a major population center, but families such as Ohnov’s throughout the country are feeling anxious and desperate as the fighting spreads.

“It’s hard to predict,” Ohnov, a member of the men’s swim team and a criminal justice major, said on Tuesday. “The way things are going right now, it can be dangerous anytime soon. For example, two days ago my family was just fine. They were just watching the news and living their own lives, going to their jobs. But today, everybody is sleeping in the basement because of the emergency siren.”

Many Ukrainians are fleeing the country. About 700,000 have left so far, according to United Nations estimates, and 5-7 million (a tenth of the population) could be displaced as the invasion moves into other areas of the country, experts say. According to Dr. Jacob Wobig, associate professor of political science at Wingate, a huge wave of people is heading toward the border with Poland, to the west.

“Most of those fleeing are already vulnerable: families with young children, the elderly, people with health conditions, and so on,” Wobig says. “It is difficult to provide shelter, food and other assistance in any kind of refugee situation, but the numbers involved here mean that the need will be particularly acute. They will suffer terrible hardship if they do not receive assistance.”

Many of those who are leaving large population centers or the country altogether wind up meeting Yaroslav Pyzh, whose daughter, Aliya Pyzh, is a junior at Wingate. Yaroslav is the president of the Ukrainian Baptist Theological Seminary (UBTS), in Lviv, a city 40 miles from the Polish border. Immediately after the invasion began, he converted the seminary into a refugee center. About 150 displaced people pass through the center each day; they are housed briefly, fed and then transported to the border or to homes in the Lviv region.

The Ukrainians who show up at UBTS are in dire straits, Yaroslav says. “Despair, that’s the best word,” he says. “They’re totally lost. They’re trying to save their children. It doesn’t make any sense what is happening. There’s a lot of heartbreaking stories.”

Lviv is somewhat protected by its proximity to Poland – “You can’t use heavy artillery, because it might land in another country,” Yaroslav says – but it’s not immune from the fighting. Aliya, an English major who plans to go to law school, is proud of her father for providing refuge and assistance to so many, but there is still the potential for conflict there: Explosions have occurred in the Lviv region, which has been inundated by refugees in the past few days.

Aliya Pyzh headshot

Once while Aliya was talking to her family by video call, her mother decided to go outside to listen for signs of fighting. “She said, ‘If I don’t come back …’” Aliya says, leaving the rest unspoken. “We’ve had a lot of those goodbye moments. I was like, ‘Am I going to see her screen go dark soon?’”

In Charlottesville, Virginia, Dmytro Tyshchyshyn ’21 (Pharm.D.) monitors Ukrainian news via the messaging app Telegram while balancing it out with CNN and Fox News reports. His two sisters and grandfather came to Charlottesville a few days before the invasion began, but his mother, father and grandmother remain on the western outskirts of Kyiv (Russia invaded the capital from the east). They are safe for the moment and have enough supplies, but they keep the doors and windows locked and keep all lights off from sundown to sunrise.

“They hear everything,” Tyshchyshyn says. “Fortunately, it’s still safe in the area where they are staying, but it’s very stressful, regardless of where they are staying, as long as they are in Ukraine.”

Tyshchyshyn, who attended Wingate for two years as an undergraduate student before transitioning into the School of Pharmacy, says he’s proud of his country for standing up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, but he also knows that Ukraine is outnumbered. “Every time I go to bed, I don’t know if Ukraine will still exist or not,” he says.

Ukraine continues to fight, bolstered by their president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, whom Aliya Pyzh calls “a hero.”

"I think everyone was expecting him to get out of there as quickly as possible, and he kept posting, ‘I’m still here. We’re still in Kyiv,’” she says. “I was thinking, If he’s willing to die, and he’s the No. 1 target, maybe we have a chance here.”

Ohnov also feels proud of his country for fighting back, but his emotions are up and down. He says he feels helpless at times, guilty at others, for not being there to fight. At all times – except, he says, when he’s in the pool, practicing for the national meet next week – he is thinking about Ukraine. He knows he’s distracted and is worried that his schoolwork will slip.

“When I’m not in the pool, I’m with my phone,” he says. “I went to class yesterday. It wasn’t good. For five minutes I’m listening to the professor. For five minutes I’m thinking about home. In my head I’m like, What did he just say?”

To better inform students about the situation in Ukraine, Wobig is planning to hold a Lyceum, “Making Sense of the Crisis in Ukraine,” on March 16 at 7 p.m. The event will be held via Zoom. Thursday at 3:30 p.m., the Office of International Programs and the Department of History and Political Science are holding a special event: “Crisis in Context: Our Brief Guide to Understanding the Conflict in Ukraine.” Join via Zoom.

To learn more about UBTS, which is using donations from people around the world to provide food, clothing and shelter for displaced Ukrainians, visit the website of their U.S.-based partner organization, Ukraine Partnership Foundation.

March 2, 2021