Sharing student stories from Ukraine

Patrick O’Donnell is Union President at York University Students' Union


Ben Vulliamy is the CEO of the University of York Students’ Union

We recently met Vitalina Shevchenko, along with members of the student council she chairs at Karazin Kharkiv National University in Ukraine.

It gave us an important reminder of the power of solidarity.

It was a humbling conversation with a group of students who are shouldering a huge responsibility to protect and connect their peers amidst a war.

When we asked how we could organise students to support from York and the UK, we got a simple and clear answer. “Share our story and let us know we are not forgotten.”

Karazin Kharkiv National University

Kharkiv is the second largest city in Ukraine, based in the north east of the country close to the Russian border. Home to Freedom Square, a large plaza surrounded by government buildings that over the years has been the focus of Soviet takeover and German occupation – and only became known as Freedom Square when Ukraine gained independence in the 1990s.

It was the focal point of intense attack from Putin’s forces at the start of March this year with Ukrainian forces fighting hard to push the battle out of the city to the north more recently.

The university is the second oldest in Ukraine, founded 1804. Through the 200 years since it has grown to approximately 20,000 students. It came under intense Russian shelling in March 2022 – its faculty of Economics was completely destroyed on March 2nd, the university sports complex on March 5th, the faculty of Physics and Technology on March 11th and the Institute of Public Administration ruined on March 18th.

On March 22nd, 20 days after the attacks on Kharkiv started, the university’s press service announced that the university had no intact buildings remaining.

Students organising

Given we were meeting four students from the Kharkiv student council on Zoom less than 2 months after their university was destroyed, and less than 3 months after the war started, we had no idea what to expect.

When we started to listen to these remarkable young people, we were surprised to find them astonishingly calm and dignified. Initially we thought it might be shock – but increasingly as they spoke it became apparent that, while there is shock, it was not freezing them.

They acknowledged that “there is no rule book” and shared some of their deep uncertainty. They told us how “we spend a lot of our time messaging to try to locate people and see if they are alive”. The conversation also demonstrated a laser-like focus on what their role was, what their students needed and an incredible discipline about how to go about that. Students were organising.

As students dispersed, pushed from their homes and lecture halls, fleeing to be with family or in safer parts of the country, the student council snapped into gear. They have established complex electronic networks to share information, check in on each other, identify people without homes and refuge or food and water.

They have also been helping students try to get access to technology to continue their studies. They were sharing news carefully and sensitively of loss. They were connecting, preserving and even strengthening their student community.

We asked about how they were supported and they told us of dramatic increases in the quality and consistency of dialogue with their institution – the student council meets with the university and other leaders at least weekly to identify and resolve concerns, ensure clarity of information, distribute resources and arrange accommodation.

They acknowledged how dramatically agendas had shifted – previous issues that would have dominated the representative agenda were now long forgotten as they tried to rehouse people whose homes were destroyed, who couldn’t access basic amenities or who had lost family.

Students were representing themselves – making sure their stories were told, their most basic needs were understood and addressed. The students we met acknowledged their role had always been to protect their students’ rights but now, in the midst of war that had a very different meaning and an urgency that required a different type of dialogue.

They mentioned a blog sharing students’ testimonies and experiences with one another of events, study and activities at the university, making sure students could hear the familiar voices of their peers, see the places, spaces and faces that and that these were available to the wider world.

Hope

A lot of student leaders’ work is about creating hope. Campaigning 101 teaches student officers and leaders that anger, hope and action is the pathway to mobilising for change. The great orators, election campaigns, story tellers, campaigners, politicians throughout time create hope.

South American novelist and human rights activist Ariel Dorfman said that “we can live with lots of things, but we can’t live without imagination, we can’t live without hope”. It felt like the work of the students we met was focused in exactly that space – imaginative solutions to problems and inspiring hope for their community.

As we moved towards the end of our conversation with the students we said that we very much hoped that one day soon it would be safe so they could come to York to visit us or we might come to Kharkiv to visit them. Their faces lit up.

One of them told us about a specific space in one of the university buildings. She shared a room number and told us it was the students favourite space at the university – where students congregated to talk together, play together, host events and activities. She told us that she would like to show us around the space soon. That building and space may well be destroyed but the community who have occupied it are still in hope. They are holding onto it in their minds and sharing that space with us in their imagination.

Solidarity can be a phrase that is overused or said without really understanding its significance. As we ended the conversation with our friends from the student council in Kharkiv and promised them we would be in touch regularly to see how they were, to explore how we support and share their story, to keep open the hand of friendship from York, we understood the importance of solidarity.

When we told them we would be thinking of them we really meant it. When we said we were moved by their experiences and integrity we really felt it. And when we told them our students, the students of the UK and around the world are with them protecting their community, it was a deep and sincere statement of solidarity.

We will be speaking with them again. We will stand with them on their campus in future.

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