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Ukrainian students in the U.S. watch a war on their homeland unfold from abroad

Tetiana Tytko (center) participates in a student protest against Russia's war in Ukraine. She is one of the several Ukrainian students studying in the U.S. who spoke to NPR about their experience in recent weeks.
Tetiana Tytko
Tetiana Tytko (center) participates in a student protest against Russia's war in Ukraine. She is one of the several Ukrainian students studying in the U.S. who spoke to NPR about their experience in recent weeks.

Updated March 21, 2022 at 2:02 PM ET

Some 1,700 Ukrainians are studying in the U.S., according to the most recent data from the Institute of International Education. NPR spoke to three of them about what it's like watching their home country come under attack from thousands of miles away.

They described constantly scrolling for news and checking in with family members back home, while handling classes and other academic commitments that feel less important under the circumstances.

All three say the conflict feels close to home, even from abroad. And they're all figuring out how to channel their emotions into tangible support for Ukraine, from organizing vigils to sharing resources and information.

"School is one area, but this is ... not of the greatest importance right now," says Tetiana Tytko, a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland who grew up in western Ukraine. "Going to a protest, raising my voice, raising money, like sharing resources how people can donate — I think that's more important right now than just with exams or, you know, homework."


Tetiana Tytko is taking action

Tetiana Tytko holds a sign at a protest for Ukraine. She says she's working to help people on the ground and educate those around her.
/ Tetiana Tytko
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Tetiana Tytko
Tetiana Tytko holds a sign at a protest for Ukraine. She says she's working to help people on the ground and educate those around her.

Tytko, who is originally from Chernivtsi in southwestern Ukraine, says the war has changed her perspective.

"When the war started, I literally stopped having sense of everything that I was doing before," she says. "Like, everything just lost meaning ... because I knew that my family, my friends, they were not safe anymore."

Tytko was in disbelief that some of the footage she saw was coming from Ukraine, not out of a horror movie. Tytko says the streets that are being bombed are the same ones she used to walk on just years ago, adding that the situation is especially painful because she's far away from home and her family.

When Russia first invaded Ukraine in late February, Tytko initially felt disoriented and didn't know what to do. Then she jumped into action.

She went to a protest outside of the White House and got in touch with more Ukrainians. Soon she was packing medical equipment and rescue kits, and compiling fundraising information about how to help Ukrainians.

Tytko, who speaks Russian, is also involved in planning a panel with students from Russia. She says a bunch of international students reached out to her to apologize, expressing their shame and sadness about the conflict.

Tytko says she no longer feels "super helpless" now that she's working to help people on the ground and educate those around her.

"I think even from here, from the U.S., like being so far away from home, I'm still doing everything that I can just to help Ukraine and just support the people to spread awareness," she adds. "I know not all of my friends ... on social media are happy about me constantly posting pictures of people being injured, the buildings being bombed. But this is what's happening. So I'm just trying to raise awareness about the situation."

Vlada Trofiumchuk says she's existing in parallel realities

Vlada Trofimchuk is originally from the Ukrainian city of Sumy and is studying at Colby College in Maine.
/ Vlada Trofimchuk
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Vlada Trofimchuk
Vlada Trofimchuk is originally from the Ukrainian city of Sumy and is studying at Colby College in Maine.

Vlada Trofimchuk is a junior studying psychology and German at Colby College in Maine. She and her family are from Sumy, a northeastern city near Russia that has been heavily bombarded. Her parents have relocated to a safer part of the country, though her grandparents are still there.

The war is extremely personal for Trofimchuk. She acknowledges that her classmates may follow the news coming out of Ukraine and empathize with her situation but are then able to "forget about it and go and do their thing, which is not the case for me."

She's figuring out how to navigate the unique position of living in "two realities."

"You don't want to be the person who talks about war all the time because, you know, people still have their own lives," she says. "People still go out and party and enjoy it. And you are in that weird position of, like, how do you fit in this whole picture?"

At the start of the semester — before the war broke out — Trofimchuk was excited to throw herself into her classes. But she says it's nearly impossible to focus on schoolwork now: With the constant barrage of news alerts, every reading and writing assignment takes "three or four times as much as it used to."

Trofimchuk says when she focuses on Ukraine, she feels guilty for letting her academics slip. But the reverse is true, too. If she participates too much in class, for example, she feels guilty for not giving more attention to her country's plight.

"So many people are suffering, so many people are dying. And you are not there. You are the one in safety," she says. "Why are you the one who should be in safety while there are so many other people dying?"

Marta Hulievska is balancing academics and activism

Marta Hulievska is a freshman studying creative writing and government at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. She's originally from the southeastern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia.

Her mother, grandmother and sisters fled to the west of Ukraine when the war started, but her father — who is of fighting age — was forced to stay behind. She says she feels the stress of what they're going through, thousands of miles away.

"This is weird to me because I have never been actually under the bombs," she says. "But, for example, when the snow falls from the roof and I hear the loud sound or just my neighbors are being loud or something, I start getting panicked. And I have to tell myself that I'm in America, nothing is happening in America ... This is some kind of, I don't know, secondhand PTSD."

Hulievska says she wakes up most mornings with an anxiety attack and is only really able to function after she texts both of her parents and checks the news on multiple social media platforms (she makes it a point to shut everything off after 9 p.m.).

She said she feels survivor's guilt for being outside of Ukraine and relatively safe. She started a Ukrainian student association in an effort to feel more helpful, holding fundraisers and panels on campus.

"I don't want to feel like I just escaped the country away while everyone there in Ukraine is fighting for their life right now, you know?" she said.

She says the war has made her own problems seem much less important. The same is true for her coursework.

Hulievska feels that if what she's doing is not "an immediate help to Ukraine ... it's of no use." When the war first started she tried to keep up with her homework, but felt distracted and unproductive.

"I'm taking medieval history right now," she explains. "And I was like, 'How's that relevant to everything that is happening?' I mean that's relevant, of course, because you have to study history to better understand what's going on, but it doesn't feel like immediate help."

Hulievska spoke to NPR during finals period, but had stopped going to classes two weeks earlier. She got extensions and still plans to finish her courses and take her finals. But she says she wants to put whatever energy she has in this moment toward helping Ukraine.

"You cannot live like that forever," she adds. "At some point, you're just going to burn out, and at some point, I will probably have to try to balance out my studies and my activism here on campus. But for now ... I will try to make most out of it."

The audio version of this story was produced by Ian Stewart and edited by Ravenna Koenig, with contributions from Anya Steinberg.


The digital version of this story originally appeared on the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.