Letter: UBC’s history teaches us that we can do more for Ukrainian people

When I started my PhD back in 2018, I went on every single campus tour I could find. Many of those tours discussed the Reconciliation Pole — and rightfully so. Some of them also highlighted the Sopron Gate, a monument donated by alumni of the Hungarian Forestry School in Sopron (or the Sopron University of Forestry) in Hungary to the UBC Faculty of Forestry.

This beautiful gate was donated to commemorate an act of solidarity performed by the UBC community towards students and faculty in Hungary, some 65 years ago. Following the 1956 revolution in Hungary, students and faculty at the Sopron University of Forestry faced the violence of the Soviet army as they fired on protesters.

In September 1957, at the invitation and support of UBC, 14 faculty and 200 students from the Hungarian Sopron University of Forestry came to UBC to continue their work and studies, following persecution in their home country. UBC lent a hand and helped those in need. Not only did our university invite Hungarian refugees to continue their studies at UBC, but offered them many accommodations and forms of material support. Their story is one that we at UBC can be proud of.

Today, Ukraine is suffering a brutal war as Russian soldiers invade the country, performing horrifying injustices, murdering innocent civilians and creating more than 2 million refugees. As we look on from the safety of North America, people in Ukraine face war, terrorism and death. We can’t choose indifference in the face of such atrocities. And yet, many of us feel powerless and sit hoping that our leaders do the right thing.

At UBC, we are in a unique position. We don’t have to stay indifferent. We don’t have to wait for leaders. UBC can learn from its own past and do the right thing. It can offer subsidies, housing, funding and enrolment to students, staff and faculty from Ukrainian institutions, on its own, or through programs like Scholars at Risk and the New University in Exile Consortium. Some institutions, like Brown University, have already done that.

As the federal government takes steps to create avenues for immigration for Ukrainian refugees, UBC can be at the forefront of a humanitarian effort to secure the future of many of these refugees. This is doable, today, and needs only the willingness and initiative of university leadership.

Many say that the current acts of solidarity with Ukraine constitute a racist double-standard, and ask where those acts were for refugees from other war-torn regions, such as the Middle East. This is an important critique, and here on campus, we might also ask why it is that UBC talks about human rights while taking limited steps to alleviate the suffering of others where it can. We might also point out that students are far better at responding to global crises than university leadership.

These are crucial conversations that we should have, yet they are not reasons to stay indifferent. Rather, they are opportunities to start doing the right thing and hold UBC’s leadership accountable so that similar initiatives may be implemented in the future.

More than 60 years after their arrival in Canada, the choice to help those in need in Hungary proved to be a success. Many of the students who came from Sapron continued to graduate school, and many made a considerable impact in the field of forestry. While our shared legacy is something to be proud of, it is not an excuse to rest on our laurels. Rather, it is proof that we can and must lend a helping hand.

While UBC has offered moderate support — whether in tuition deferrals for Russian UBC students or programming for affected students — and a potentially-harmful symbolic decision to cut ties with Russian institutions is currently being debated by Senate, these measures are few and far-between.

UBC can and should offer subsidies and funding schemes to incoming and current students at all levels of study, tuition deferrals and exemptions, housing opportunities for incoming Ukrainian students and their families, support with immigration applications and counselling services to help incoming and current students cope with the traumatic effects of this war.

This is a short and incomplete list of things we can do. However, this list shows that we can help, and that our help can have a huge impact. Our shared history shows that it is possible. The time to act is now.

Yotam Ronen is a PhD candidate at the department of educational studies. His research focuses on the global history of education during the early twentieth century and radical educators who acted in educational spaces to create a better world.