“The world stopped turning”: Minerva students and the war in Ukraine

By Aspen Pflughoeft, Class of 2022 | Mar 29, 2022

“My experience has been horrible. Do you want me to do, like, a little story? Or do you just want to hear my emotions and feelings?” Viktoriia Honcharuk, an M’22 from Baranivka, Ukraine, currently in San Francisco, spoke on the video call.

“So I was on a work call and I got about five different messages from about five different people. Most of them were from Ukrainians at Minerva and the messages said, ‘it started.’”

The time was 7 p.m. in San Francisco on February 23, 2022.

“The next two hours, I was just in shock. I was anxious. I was just shivering and shaking,” said Honcharuk.

Russia had just launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Air raid sirens went off in more than a dozen cities across Ukraine.

“My family is currently not safe,” said Victoria Stepanenko, an M’22 from Dnipro, Ukraine, currently in San Francisco. “My mother and brother had to flee to Poland. My father and part of my family had to stay. They are now hiding in bomb shelters.”

The time was 12 a.m. in Buenos Aires on February 24, 2022.

“I am halfway across the world from my home,” said Oksana Pylypiuk, an M’21 from Volodymyr, Ukraine, currently in Buenos Aires. “Work and sleep lost their meaning. It’s been hard to describe to anyone how much this war has ruined life for everyone I love.”

The time was 4 a.m. in Kyiv on February 24, 2022.

“I can’t seem to remember clearly anything that happened before the war,” shared Violetta Karpenko, an M’21 from Voznesensk, Ukraine. “I moved to Kyiv in October or November. I could never imagine living through so much pain and fear. Never.”

The war in Ukraine directly affects nearly 60 Minerva students — about 10% of the student body — and indirectly affects countless other students.

“My first response was to call my sister, who was in Kyiv,” said Honcharuk. “She didn’t pick up. I called my parents. They didn’t pick up.

“I finally got a text back from my sister. Her text only said, ‘I’m packing my bag, and I’m going to join the army,’” recalled Honcharuk. “The next day, my parents said the same thing. My mom’s afraid of blood. She’s an elementary school teacher. Same with my sister; she was a marketing specialist.

“They joined the armed forces to do as much as they can to protect their home. To save as many lives as possible. As my dad said, ‘to keep the peaceful sky above your head.’ They were doing this for me and for their kids. They want us to have a home. They want me to have a home to come back to.

“There’s three different ways to join the armed forces in Ukraine right now,” Honcharuk explained. “One is the official army, which is what my dad did. One is like my sister. She joined a voluntary battalion, one of the most famous battalions in Ukraine right now. If you heard about the bombing of the birthing center, the reason [Russia] bombed it was because they were told that’s where my sister’s battalion was. The third way is territorial defense groups. This means you’re staying where you live, and you start building for potential invasion of your own town. You help with humanitarian aid. You try to get resources in, and if the fight comes to your town, you fight. My mom joined the third one. My mom was actually selected as the head of the battalion for her territorial defense group. She’s a natural born leader. I’m very proud of them.”

To support her family, Honcharuk began fundraising. Her family and their respective units lacked essential supplies of medicine, warm uniforms, and bulletproof vests. Honcharuk’s family is one of many choosing to stay in Ukraine.

Polina Zen, an M’24 from Kyiv, currently in Seoul, can relate. “All of my family is staying in Ukraine, and they’re helping; they don’t plan to evacuate,” said Zen. “I’m living in the understanding that my most updated information is that my family is fine, but in the moment that I’m saying that, they could be not.”

“My dad stays in Kyiv, which is a hotspot right now,” Zen shared. “There have been bombings in our neighborhood. Once, there was a bombing of the TV tower and on the street nearby five people died. And I saw videos of dead people, and I talked to my dad, and he said he went down this street two hours before it happened.”

With family still in Dnipro, Stepanenko has come to know the same worries. “My city is currently getting bombed by missiles. They have air raid sirens signaling that people have to go to the bomb shelters every night, about five, six times per night.”

For others, like Pylypiuk’s family, trying to stay in Ukraine has meant repeatedly fleeing home. “This war has drastically changed our lives in 2014.

My mother and her family come from the Luhansk region. My aunt’s family fled to Kharkiv to seek refuge at my other aunt’s house, leaving everything behind to be completely leveled to the ground. Seven people lived in a one-bedroom apartment for two years. Recently, [my aunt] moved into her new home in Kharkiv, which once again served as a target for a Russian missile. They fled a week ago, this time to my hometown.

“Right now, my parents are hosting eight people who were able to escape from Kharkiv, along with 10 pets,” said Pylypiuk. “My sister and her two kids, five and six [years old], fled to Poland.”

The war has also scattered Karpenko and her family. “My life stopped 25 days ago, and now it’s on hold until the war is over,” shared Karpenko. “Soon, there will be a month since the war started, a month since I left home, a month since I didn’t see my loved ones.

“I learned that if you cry for days, you get a little crust on your cheeks from all the salt.

“My grandma writes poems in the bomb shelter. My brother switched to Ukrainian as his base language and joined the army. I can’t ask him any questions, so I send him a daily set of memes instead. My boyfriend returned from a job overseas and now volunteers on a spot.

“I don’t know when I will be able to say that life is beautiful,” said Karpenko.

“Something in me that could appreciate joy and beauty is dead.

“And then there is guilt,” shared Karpenko. “For being luckier, for having connections, for getting out, for speaking Russian, for saving yourself, for taking care of yourself, for being able not to read the news when I feel like I’ll vomit, for having food, for not seeing nightmares and not waking up in the middle of the night because of sirens.

“We seem to have individual experiences, but our ups and downs, hopes and fears are all synchronized with the entire country,” said Karpenko. “We are collectively going through high peaks of optimism and low points of exhaustion. Our only collective answer to ‘how are you’ is ‘alive.’ But we are holding on for one another. We can’t give up, not as a person, not as a family, and not as a country.”

Over the last month, Stepanenko has also been holding on. “For many Ukrainians, it feels like the world stopped turning,” shared Stepanenko. “I can’t ever relax. It’s very hard to sleep. The first two weeks, I was just constantly shaking. I’ve been trying to do a lot of work to help people as much work as I can. Connecting people to resources, helping set up humanitarian aid logistics, trying to understand what people need, trying to help evacuate people, get them food and water.

“Minerva students have been helping a lot,” said Stepanenko. “Helping set up logistics, helping through media campaigns, helping share reliable information. Everyone is helping in any way they can with whatever time they have to spare.”

Over the last month, this sense of camaraderie has permeated Minerva’s community around the world.

“It’s through [the Minerva community] that I could get to a safe place,” shared Karpenko, who fled from Kyiv to Berlin, Germany, near the start of the war. ”I felt like I am still part of the community and always will be. Like a kid in need in a big family.”

Even with this support, living through the war from afar has become a conflicting experience for many Ukrainians.

“I hate being so far away,” said Honcharuk. “Last week, I seriously considered going back to Ukraine and trying to help on the ground, but my parents talked me out of it. They said, ‘at least for now, please stay there.’

“So I’m trying to stay here,” Honcharuk shared, “but it’s very difficult not knowing how my family is, not being able to help them mentally, just not being able to hug them. I want to see them very soon and I want to hug them. I want to be with them.”

As the war has continued so have the efforts of countless Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian Minerva students to support those on the ground.

“If you have the capacity to donate, please do so,” urged Pylypiuk. “This war will be long, and we will need a lot of help rebuilding the beautiful life in Ukraine we fought so hard to nurture.”

“Every person can make a difference in any small way in which they think they can contribute,” urged Stepanenko. “With their skills, with their knowledge, with their emotional support, with their compassion. All these efforts will be compounded, and we will actually make a change.”

“We are not backing down,” said Stepanenko. “We will win sooner or later, but we’d prefer for it to be sooner.”

Read more about and donate directly to efforts organized by Viktoriia Honcharuk’s family: https://www.suppliesforukraine.com/

Donate to other local fundraising efforts by going to www.helpuanow.org/, a site created and launched by Minerva students to support local efforts in Ukraine.

Support the Minerva Student Emergency Assistance Fund, a fund held by Minerva University and created to support students through extreme and unexpected circumstances: https://www.minerva.edu/student-emergency-assistance-fund/

Access Aspen’s Medium article about information and misinformation around the war here: https://medium.com/digital-diplomacy/whats-happening-in-ukraine-resources-and-advice-for-reliable-english-language-news-215a687b17d3

This will be updated as additional student initiatives form.