'All my life is in Ukraine': Students call on UBC, student body for support amid Ukraine invasion

As Russian armed forces advance upon Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv and other urban centres, fourth-year film production student Liliya Syvytska is following the invasion closely as she takes action in Vancouver.

“All my life is in Ukraine. I'm a fully Kyiv person. All my family, I have no [family] here in Canada basically,” she said.

Early in the morning on February 24, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine after months of troop build-up on the Russian side of the two countries’ shared border. As of March 1, 660,000 Ukrainians have fled their country while other civilians take up arms to protect from Russian advancements towards Kyiv and other urban centres.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has argued the invasion is intended to liberate people from genocide and denazify Ukraine, but there is little evidence of either of these things.

Syvytska said she has barely slept or eaten since the invasion started last Thursday. Her entire family, including her mother, father, brother, grandparents and pregnant cousin, are in a bomb shelter in Kyiv.

“[My dad] called me, for the first time in a couple days … he says, ‘We have 15 minutes to get to the bomb shelter. We need to move like 20 people, grandmothers, cousins … I love you, bye.’ That's all,” she recounted.

“I have friends in Russia, I am not hating Russians, but they need to act. Because currently my family and my friends get bombed and shot. It’s not just something out of a headline, that’s reality.”

Even in Vancouver, Syvytska flinches at the sound of airplanes and ambulances as they remind her of what’s happening in her home country.

“There is a life before and there is life after realizing what the war is,” she said. “It feels like you completely get erased.”

Olga Belokon, a master’s of Asian studies student, has also turned to activism during this time. Since Thursday, she has stood out in solidarity in front of the Musqueam Post on campus, holding signs to show support for people in Ukraine.

“It was the quickest, most apparent way to express my position. I wanted to do at least something,” Belokon told The Ubyssey on Friday.

Belokon also has a personal connection to the ongoing invasion. While she was born in St. Petersburg, her mother is from Donetsk, a region in eastern Ukraine that is now recognized by Putin as a separate state.

“I cannot stand with the decision of the Russian government,” she said. “I want my Ukrainian peers to know that we support them, that we do not want to fight with our relatives, friends and people who we love.”

She called upon more students to express solidarity with their Ukrainian peers and said she plans to continue protesting until the war ends.

Both Syvytska and Belokon said the best thing students can do is educate themselves about the war through reliable sources.

“Even that is a great support, spreading the word, knowing what is going on, and accessing accurate information,” Belokon said.

Belokon and Syvytska both would like to see UBC do more to raise awareness and aid students impacted by the war.

On February 24 — the same day Russia invaded Ukraine — UBC released a statement on Russia and Ukraine that condemned the invasion and encouraged affected students to contact International Student Advising and provided links to mental health resources. The AMS also released its own statement.

For Belokon, this is not enough.

She said she would like to see the university establish refugee clinics for students and their families who are unable to return to Ukraine. She also said she wanted a similar clinic provided for Afghani and Syrian students and their families.

Syvytska, too, believes UBC could be doing more to support Ukrainian students during the conflict, particularly in helping students attain refugee status. She said she wants to see financial aid and academic concessions for impacted students.

“We cannot write any exams and midterms right now. I needed to make a diploma film — it doesn’t matter anymore,” she said.

Syvytska wants UBC to support open discussions of the war. “Right now, silence, it is already a violence. If you are silent, that means that you are already accepting the war.”

Though Syvytska has reached out to UBC and President Santa Ono, she has yet to receive a substantial response beyond offers of mental health support.

In a separate letter addressed to Ono, third-year arts student Ksenia Vlasenko listed several similar demands for the university, including unconditional financial aid and full coverage of term two tuition fees for impacted students and academic concessions. Vlasenko is from Russia, and emphasized that many Russians don't want the war.

Vlasenko also called on UBC to “supply financial aid to Ukrainian troops and humanitarian anti-war efforts.”

For Syvytska, further recognition and support cannot come soon enough..

“None of us allows ourselves to relax until we know the war's gonna stop. We see that if we come together, everything is possible.”

If people want to learn more about the conflict or provide aid, considering checking out of these resources:

Ukraine crisis media center: https://uacrisis.org/en/hwag

Save Life (Ukrainian-based aid site): https://savelife.in.ua/donate/

UBC Central, Eastern and Northern European Teach-In: https://cenes.ubc.ca/events/event/flash-teach-in-on-ukraine/