Nikita Zalevskyi: "When you are leaving your country and your family is going back to a city in war, it is hard to think about your thesis"
Within the framework of the #UABrefugi: Ukrainian Emergency campaign, Nikita Zalevskyi, a Ukrainian student linked to the UAB, shares the strong experience of resistance to the conflict and highlights the need for support from university communities.
Students in Ukraine have lost a lot of time. We have also lost our jobs and family incomes.
If we were having this conversation in January 2022, how would you describe your life as a university student?
I am a 20 years old university student from Ukraine. In January 2022, my life was perfect. I was in Erasmus in Barcelona, studying at UAB, writing my thesis. Everything was so good. I had a job in a Ukrainian company, I had many international friends and I was studying at a good university. My student life was full of good memories, full of joy.
Right after your stay at UAB, you came back home and, suddenly, the war broke out. How did you experience this moment?
In mid-February, my Erasmus ended and I went back to Ukraine, for holidays. The second semester was supposed to start at the beginning of March and I had two weeks before coming back to Poland, where I was studying my degree.
When I was back in Ukraine, all my international friends were asking me about the possibility of a war. I, as the majority of Ukrainians, refused to believe it would happen. We could not imagine a real war in Europe on the 21st century. However, Putin’s rhetoric made it clear that war could break out, so I decided to skip my first week of class and remain at home. I could not imagine being abroad while my family was under shelling, so I stayed.
On 24 February, at 5 a.m., my mother woke me up in tears. Panicking, she told me the war had started. I will never forget those first emotions. You feel completely lost. You want to open your eyes and realise it is just a nightmare, but it was not.
My family lives near Butcha. We could hear explosions in the streets, as the Russian army immediately started bombing cities. It was not safe to stay there so we ran away. We packed all the essentials in an hour: documents, some money, and some food. We did not take any clothes. In that situation, you are panic-stricken, and cannot even stop and think for a second. I remember that morning very well. It was around 5:30 p.m. when I got outside. It was late very dark, very cold, with light rain. Sirens everywhere and so many people outside. They were all in panic, trying to get away from the city.
You were a young university student trapped in an armed conflict. How did the war affect you and your academic career?
We finally left to the country house. During two weeks, 20 people lived in the same room: family members, and also friends who needed shelter.
We secured windows to protect ourselves from a missile explosion. We could not go outside, as Russian soldiers could be anywhere at any time. We ate once a day. We could never turn the light on. It was indescribable. In those conditions, you cannot think about studying or doing something connected to university. We were just sitting and watching the news. In that situation, even if you don’t believe in God, you start praying.
How is civil society and, specifically, academic communities in Ukraine resisting and non-violently organising?
The sound of military aircrafts did not stop and we felt in constant risk of attack, so we decided go to move again to somewhere safer. We moved to western Ukraine, where we found a family that hosted us for two months.
Very quickly, we started organising. I felt I could not be studying when my country needed me the most, so I dedicate myself to civil volunteering. All the university students I know where doing the same.
The town where we stayed was close to the Polish border and it became a humanitarian centre. My friends and I were collaborating in the distribution of humanitarian aid. My mother and sister were cooking for refugees and my father was driving a van with humanitarian material to the East of Ukraine and then driving back west with people who were also leaving their home. This is how we spent months.
You had to flee Ukraine to resume and finalise your studies. What are the main challenges refugee students face?
I lost a lot of study. I also lost my job and had no time to look for another source of income. After a while, I was allowed to travel to Poland to finish my bachelor degree there. My family moved again and went back to our hometown.
Now, I have to finish my studies. The main problem is concentration. When you are leaving your country and your family is going back to a city where there are shootings and air raid sirens are sounding, it is hard to think about your thesis, about your studies. What you think about is them.
Time and resources are also a challenge. Students in Ukraine have lost a lot of time. We have also lost our jobs and family incomes.
At this point, the support of organisations and universities is crucial.
Did you received any support from university?
During the first days of the war, we were contacted by the university. Both my Polish university and the UAB sent emails providing support. I have applied to a study grant at the UAB and I have already received patronage from the university in Poland, which is providing some financial support to Ukrainian students.
In the mid-term, how do you imagine your future? What are your academic and projects?
I am planning to finish my thesis and, hopefully, to graduate. Afterwards, I would be very happy if I can get a place at the UAB for my master’s degree. Because of the situation, I cannot afford the master’s tuition. With a grant, I could make this dream a reality.
At the UAB, its Acollida Programme supports people in need of international protection. #UABRefugi is a grant initiative to ensure that refugee students can continue their university career. It started in 2016, and now it has increase its funds as a response to the war in Ukraine. Through the crowdfunding campaign Emergència Ucraïna, the UAB community is called to collaborate in reaching 20,000 euros to support students from Ukraine. Why do you think it is important to participate in the campaign?
Not only Ukrainians, but people everywhere who are facing a war are going through a terribly hard time. Having new skills and training opportunities would really help students to resist, to overcome challenging problems and not give up.