Students
Photo by Julia Berdo via Pexels

Two years of war

Their minds are still in Ukraine

Photo by Julia Berdo via Pexels
Valeriia Svintytska and Yeva Nikonenko left Ukraine and the war behind them to study in Groningen. But adapting to their new life hasn’t been easy. ‘Everything from before seems like it has disappeared.’
28 February om 11:39 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 28 February 2024
om 18:49 uur.
February 28 at 11:39 AM.
Last modified on February 28, 2024
at 18:49 PM.
Avatar photo

Door Ingrid Ştefan

28 February om 11:39 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 28 February 2024
om 18:49 uur.
Avatar photo

By Ingrid Ştefan

February 28 at 11:39 AM.
Last modified on February 28, 2024
at 18:49 PM.
Photo by Zuzana Ľudviková

Valeriia

‘I thought going back to a peaceful life would be easier’

It was the night of February 24, 2022, around 2 a.m. Valeriia had just finished writing the postcard for her mother’s birthday, turned off the news on the TV, and went to sleep excited for the day to come. She expected to wake to the sound of birthday wishes, since she shares her birthday with her mother. 

But only two hours later, her phone started buzzing and she woke up to a call from her uncle, telling her the Russians had invaded. 

‘I don’t recall what he said after that’, Valeriia says. ‘But I do recall heading out to my mother who was preparing herself for the big birthday. She had no idea what was going on, until I told her the war had started.’ 

Without waiting for a response, Valeriia went to the kitchen, sat down, and started shaking. ‘My mom called out to me several times, but I couldn’t hear her’, she says. ‘I was just sitting there. She had to literally scream at me to get a response.’

Forgotten memories

Two years later, Valeriia Svintytska has just celebrated her twenty-fourth birthday as a UG master student in the Erasmus Mundus innovative medicine programme. She’s been living outside Ukraine ever since August 2022, but mentally, she’s still back home, amidst the war. 

She can’t really remember what her life in Kyiv, her hometown, looked like before the war. That’s a common thing among Ukrainians, she says. ‘People adapt to a new environment, a new style of living. They start forgetting how things used to be’, she explains. ‘Everything from before seems like it has disappeared, and it feels as if it was always like this, even though it wasn’t.’

The Kyiv that Valeriia knew, where the hot topic of the day was the American elections, instead of the most recent bombardment, seems lost. 

Her memories of the last six months she lived in the city come down to the sounds of sirens and hours spent in the ‘bomb shelter’, or rather the bathroom, where she would work on her bachelor thesis crammed into the shower cabin with her sister. 

Sweden

Studying kept her afloat then, and two years later, it still does, along with her sense of humour. ‘We’d make fun of waking up in the night during the sirens and being tired the morning after’, she says. ‘We make a lot of jokes about stuff. Because otherwise, how can you survive?’

It was harder to adapt to life without war, than to life with war

Still, the real challenge began when she left for Sweden, to start the first year of her master’s degree. Even though she had planned to study there even before the war, leaving wasn’t easy. ‘It was harder to adapt to life without war, than adapting to life with war’, she explains. 

The community received her with open arms and was very supportive of Ukrainians in general. But that wasn’t the problem.

‘When I came to Sweden I wanted to experience everything, because it was something new. But at the same time, there were always these thoughts in the background: oh my God, I need to check my phone, is everything okay? Is something getting bombed again?’

Sound of planes

She also became more emotional about everything. ’I remember I was crying almost every day when going to university, just because I heard planes flying.’ 

It wasn’t that she was terribly scared, but in Ukraine, the sound of planes was usually a sign of another bombing. ‘There were a lot of feelings that I couldn’t cope with. I thought going back to a peaceful life would be easier.’

The war changed her. Sounds like fireworks, planes, and even just a loud bus became triggers for severe anxiety and stress. She had to deal with PTSD, but thanks to the help of psychologists, she’s doing better now.  

But she feels much older than she is. ‘One of my high school classmates died recently. He was a soldier, fighting on the frontline. That was when I realised I didn’t feel like a young person anymore. Because young people don’t go to the funeral of their school friends at the age of twenty-three, and their friends don’t die in the war.’

Fundraising

After a year and a half of a ‘normal life’, though, Valeriia has learned to continue living. And she does so in Groningen, where she’s balancing the last year of her master with an internship at the UMCG and small initiatives to help Ukrainians from afar. She’s just raised 370 euros for three individual first-aid kits going to soldiers in the Donbas region.

‘It doesn’t have to be something big to help’, she explains. ‘Many times, I’ve heard people saying that they’re just one person, what can they change? But even one person can change something. If each person donates even 20 cents, that’s a lot of money.’ 

Valeriia is hopeful about the future, but she tries to stay realistic. ‘I hope my wishes align with reality. Of course I hope that we will be able to have our country back, but at the end of the day, let the people come back home and live a normal life. That’s the only thing you need.’

Photo by Zuzana Ľudviková

Yeva

‘Don’t skip that Instagram post with the dead kid’

Three days before the Russians came, Yeva Nikonenko received a call from a friend whose dad works for the United Nations. He warned her the invasion was going to happen, and soon. 

That same day, Yeva and her family packed their essentials and left Kyiv for the western part of Ukraine. They booked a hotel for two nights, thinking they’d be back home in a matter of days. Though they knew the threat was real, they just couldn’t believe a full-on invasion would happen. Not in Europe. 

Only it did happen.

Yeva vividly remembers the first messages she got from two friends back in Kyiv, saying that the city was being bombed. ‘I was shocked to the point where I wasn’t shocked anymore. Like I was so stressed that I couldn’t even feel the stress.’

She and her family left Ukraine shortly after that, crossing into Poland and then driving all the way to Italy, where her grandmother lived. ‘It felt like my life had sort of ended. We left so unexpectedly that I didn’t get to say goodbye to anyone. I didn’t plan to leave my room, my friends.’

Graveyard

For two months, they lived with her grandmother and fourteen other relatives who had also fled, all under the same roof in an Italian village. ‘It was quite tough. I had to take my classes and exams online from the graveyard. That was the only spot with internet service’, she explains. Eventually, Yeva moved with her family to Georgia, where she also had her high school graduation, via Zoom.

I appreciated that people acted normal around me

She came to Groningen to start a bachelor programme. Like Valeriia, she had planned to study abroad even before the war started, so Groningen was a natural choice. Yeva is now a second-year international and European law student. But adapting to life here hasn’t been easy, despite getting a warm welcome.

‘I appreciated that people acted normal around me. They never treated me with pity or sympathy, and I didn’t feel the need for that’, she says. Even so, she says, ‘I wasted so much time being sad over the fact that I’m never going to get back the sense of home and community that was ripped away from me.’

In time, Yeva  made her peace with that. She learned how to find bits and pieces of that sense of belonging here in Groningen, be it in the group chat of Ukrainian students or the protests held throughout the city. In fact, the most groundbreaking moment she’s had in these past two years happened at one of these protests.

Speech

It was last year on February 24, at an event commemorating 365 days of war and those who lost their lives. Yeva recalls the many Ukrainians who gathered there, all sad and some even crying, sharing the same grief. 

Then came a speech by a woman from Sumy, a city in northeastern Ukraine and Yeva’s birthplace. ‘She couldn’t get a single word out, she was crying so much. It was devastating, because I could really relate to her. Especially when she started talking about how her family was still there and how unsafe she felt.’

It was a difficult day, Yeva remembers, but it helped to know that not only the Ukrainian community was there, but also her international friends. ‘I really appreciated it, because it showed there’s a community outside of our country that’s also willing to be there for the Ukrainians.’

Staying informed

Though there are also people who don’t even know a war is still going on, Yeva says. She’s met a few of them. ‘I’ve had people come up to me thinking the war was over, asking me when I was going back home.’ Even if she doesn’t take it personally, Yeva believes now more than ever it’s important to stay informed.

‘People continue to suffer, so don’t get used to what’s happening, neither in Ukraine, nor in Gaza. Don’t skip that Instagram post with the dead kid. Look at it. It’s upsetting and I know people are getting tired of that. But if you are tired, imagine how tired we are.’

Yeva wants to return to Kyiv one day, and help rebuild Ukraine with what she’s learned here; to give back to her community. ‘I hope that a lot of people who left will realise they can find something in the new Ukraine and go back to it’, she says. ‘I hope that we’ll be able to rebuild that sense of community that we all miss.’

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