Ukrainian student coping with 'unimaginable' reality

· 6 min read

Ukrainian student coping with ‘unimaginable’ reality

Michael Ivaschenko
Craig Chandler | University Communication
Michael Ivashchenko

Mykhailo “Michael” Ivashchenko hasn’t slept much since Feb. 24, when Russia began an invasion of his home country, Ukraine.

He’s spent hours communicating with friends and family back home while also trying to be of help, even though he is thousands of miles away pursuing a master’s degree in computer science at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. As a Fulbright student, he is part of a network of Ukrainians here in Lincoln and the United States, and a group of them have banded together to raise money for humanitarian aid in Ukraine.

Nebraska Today spoke with Ivashchenko March 7 to find out more about the fundraising campaign, his hopes for his country and how he is coping with this “unimaginable” new reality.

Just two weeks ago, everything was different. There were many who believed this wouldn’t happen. Did you share those feelings?

Well, since 2014 (the invasion of Crimea) we all have known that something has been going on — the fight that was taking place in the Eastern Ukraine — but I doubt there was a single person who actually thought that something unimaginable like a full-scale invasion could happen. Soldiers have been fighting bravely and they’ve always been there for us since 2014, and we’re extremely grateful to them. But again, the threat has never been as major as it became 12 days ago.

We hadn’t felt the danger of a full-scale invasion. We hadn’t felt it until probably the moment the Russian government started assembling troops on our border. We were fully aware of the fighting going on in the east of Ukraine, but I cannot recall myself feeling stressed about it or that it was dangerous, or that something terrible could happen.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in a city in central Ukraine. It’s a little bit bigger than Omaha.

Have you been able to keep in touch with your family and friends at home?

I’ve been talking to my friends and family every day. They are all safe and well because my city has not been attacked. I’ve also been in touch with my former professors from the university in Kyiv. And they’ve been having a hard time, but they’re all right.

My mom has been working from home, trying not to go anywhere. That is our new reality.

I don’t know anyone who has been trying to leave, but my fellow Fulbrighters have been working a lot to provide information, contacts, to people who need to leave. We’ve been trying to help as much as possible.

You’ve started an online campaign to raise money for aid. How did that come to be?

I’m part of the group of 10 people and most of them are either current Fulbrighters or alumni. One of them is a professor at Wesleyan University, who is from Ukraine. He is also a former Fulbright student and graduated from UNL. We decided to contact the Ukrainian Association of Washington State, which was also trying to collect money to help our country. We’ve started a fundraiser here in Nebraska first, on social media, and then spread it all over the United States as far as possible.

How have you been coping, being here and watching this unfold?

First, I felt like it cannot and it should not be happening. Right? We haven’t been sleeping, but the first four days, I tried to think of whatever I could do to make even small impact. Then, I started to sort it a bit and became more productive and more effective. We started the campaign to raise money for humanitarian aid. We started writing letters, spreading the information, and it has become something bigger.

I’ve been shocked, sad, frustrated and really, really confused because this should not be happening in the 21st century. I mean, we’re trying to colonize Mars. And then such things like war happen, which is confusing, you know?

I’m lucky that I don’t have classes this semester, just research. I’m extremely grateful to my professor who gave me some time off to sort it all out. But starting this week, I am coming back to my research, step by step.

How is the morale of your family and friends back home?

A lot of people, not only my family and friends, in Ukraine are extremely united and the morale, from what I could see, has been high so far. But they are also angry. Innocent people are being killed.

You’re working on your master’s degree, but you’d like to get your doctorate, too. Are you planning to move back to Ukraine?

I really hope so. I was planning to go back home after I graduated with my master’s, at least for several weeks (before continuing graduate school). This will be in August. I do hope I still will be able to go because all this, I believe, should be over. If not, then I’ll be waiting and as soon as I have an opportunity, I will go home because I haven’t been back since I came here in August 2020. With the pandemic, going home to visit was too difficult. Just getting here was super stressful and took five days.

What is your hope for the future of Ukraine?

We just want our country to be left alone. We want our country to be allowed to develop itself in peace. We want peace, first and foremost. After that, we will figure out how to move forward as Ukrainian people and as a country.

What have been your thoughts about the world’s response to Russia’s invasion?

As Ukrainians, we’re extremely grateful to the world for being as vocal as it has been so far. I think we have received enormous support from almost every corner of the world. This is what also helps us to keep going, to keep fighting, and that’s one of the reasons we have been succeeding in defending our country.

What can people do to help here?

We’ve been extremely grateful for all the support. It really is as simple as sharing a post about our fundraiser on Facebook or making even a tiny donation. Our country would be extremely appreciative of it. Even a $5 donation could actually buy essential medicine for a newborn child that was just born in the subway station in Kyiv, which is currently being bombed. Every shared post could potentially allow someone else to provide their support to our country. Anything someone can do matters, even if it feels minor.

We have our fundraising campaign, but people can also donate to the fund that was set up by the National Bank of Ukraine. It will be distributed by the Ministry of Social Policy directly to Ukrainians most affected by the war.

For additional ways to contribute to the Ukrainian cause, click here.

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