‘I think of family’: Ukrainian, Russian students speak out about conflict in Ukraine

    Russian invading forces attacked a military unit on Peremohy Avenue in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 26, 2022. The Ukrainian forces have successfully fought the attack off. (Verkhovna Rada/Telegram)

    After Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a “special military operation” on Feb. 24 in Ukraine, Ukrainian and Russian students in Fredericton felt the impact as the invasion pressed on.

    Oleksandra Hunchyk, a third-year Ukrainian St. Thomas University student, was born and raised in Ukraine until the age of 14. Though her parents and brother are in Canada, her relatives and friends are in a siren-heavy Ukraine.

    Hunchyk said it was unexpected.

    Her grandmother is taking care of a disabled, bed-ridden woman and won’t leave her side to seek refuge in Poland.

    Hunchyk’s friend in the occupied city of Mariupol gave birth two weeks ago and is hiding in basements with her baby, running out of food and diapers.

    There is no news from her great-grandmother who lives in a military town.

    Her younger cousin, sick with COVID-19, packed medicine, food, clothes, blankets and backpacks in hopes of escaping with her mother and boyfriend to Poland. But their timing clashed with the border law prohibiting men over 18, like her boyfriend, from leaving. Unwilling to separate, they remained in Ukraine, flocking to basement bomb shelters at the siren’s call.

    “I was impressed by the courage and the [calmness with which] she was talking about all this stuff,” said Hunchyk. “I remember her being much more emotional than I am and it seemed to me she became an adult in basically a couple of hours.”

    Most of Hunchyk’s family has internet access – she calls and texts for reassurance that they’re okay. She regularly checks a telegram page that notifies her whenever sirens go off in her city.

    “Those notifications … if they drive me crazy, I don’t know how [my family] deals with it,” she said. “But they seem to deal with it much better than I do. They’re so calm, so focused and seem okay. There was no hysterics, no crying, no yelling, no blaming the world and the injustice in the world.”

    Before the escalation, Hunchyk was telling her mother about her stressful midterm week. On the day Russia invaded Ukraine, she called her sister about the situation.

    “I managed not to cry until I finished talking … but then it blew up,” she said. “It just went so bad. … Every time I thought of it, I started to cry.”

    The next morning, she had a midterm to write and sirens were blaring in her small city of Novovolynsk. She had a panic attack but refrained from asking for an extension, anticipating that the violence would only increase. She said she was shaking and faint, her vision fading. She had to cling to the walls to get to class.

    Hunchyk grounded herself by contributing to local humanitarian efforts for Ukraine. She said the Ukrainian community in Fredericton set up a Facebook page filled with donation forums that span financial aid towards medicine, money, arms and daily supplies. 

    The federal government will match every donation made to the Red Cross in support of Ukraine up to $10 million.

    “If you’re sitting there at home just watching the news, you’re just feeling so helpless and hopeless, feeling like your hands are cut off and you cannot do anything. Honestly, my family wanted to go back to Ukraine and do something, to volunteer, but it’s just obvious that we’re not going to do anything if [we go] there.” said Hunchyk. “So we’re trying to do something from here.”

    Nicole Zacharuk, a third-year STU student, has Ukrainian roots through her father and grandparents. Though not having been to Ukraine, she grew up surrounded by Ukrainian culture. She is drawn to her cultural roots and fears she will lose pieces of her Ukrainian heritage to the conflict before being able to discover them. Her father died when she was young, so she considers Ukrainian culture a way to connect with him.

    “It’s pretty scary that I haven’t been [to Ukraine] yet and they’re at war. I’m really hoping that the culture doesn’t get lost because it’s a big part of my personality,” said Zacharuk.

    She describes Ukrainian culture as family-and-food-oriented and bursting with happy music.

    “It’s how you feel in your heart,” she said. “I just learned so much about the culture from my grandparents so when I see anything Ukrainian, I think of family.”

    She said her grandmother’s children are all Ukrainian but live around the world, which Zacharuk said makes her miss the Ukrainian culture.

    She wants her grandmother to feel like their Ukrainian culture will be preserved. 

    “I want to carry down being Ukrainian in our family and in our blood,” she said.

    Artem Chernev is a Russian, former University of New Brunswick student. He lived in Russia and Kazakhstan for 15 years and has family in the Russian city of Orenburg. 

    One of his cousins is an army general in the Russian military. While Chernev was speaking to him over the phone weeks ago, his cousin said he can’t talk about what’s happening, but told him that, “80 per cent of what you seen on the TV is going to be true.” Chernev didn’t think much of it and then the operation began.

    “I don’t want to talk about how [the conflict] is making me feel because that would be taking away from the people who are living there, from the Russian soldiers fighting the war against their Ukrainian brothers and even relatives for the most part,” said Chernev.

    He said media coverage from the war made some people have a generalized hatred towards Russians. Chernev received hate comments and death threats on his social media. He wants to spread the word that not all Russians are responsible for the war on Ukraine.

    Zacharuk is also distracted by the constant updates on social media. She said it is hard to focus on schoolwork when she’s bombarded with news coverage of the attack on Ukraine every time she opens her laptop. 

    Still, she finds solace in the activism around Ukraine, citing the local rallies in Fredericton, Moncton and Saint John, rich with Ukrainian flags and anthems.

    “The biggest thing I can do to cope with it is to feel like I’m making a little bit of a difference in some way,” said Zacharuk. “How do you process something so big like that?”