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Ukraine and Oxford on the anniversary of the invasion

Cherwell interviewed Oxford Ukrainian Scholars and refugee coordinators as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reached its one year anniversary.

Friday 24th February 2023 marked a year since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with the anniversary Peace Rally in Radcliffe Square attracting impressive crowds in a strong show of Oxford’s solidarity. The University launched a Ukrainian Scholarship scheme in May last year to help post-graduates from across Ukraine live and study in Oxford.

Cherwell interviewed three recipients of the Ukranian Scholarship alongside the Programme Coordinator for ‘Refugee Academic Futures’ and a member of the Kharkiv and Przemyśl Project (KHARPP). Cherwell also caught up with a Romanian engineer involved in provision for Ukrainian refugees who first spoke to Cherwell a year ago, and visited a special Ukrainian exhibition at the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Sofia Nosirova is a student on the Ukrainian Scholarship Scheme. Studying Historical Linguistics has always been her dream and “this scheme was at Oxford, so I felt a responsibility to take this opportunity to apply, and I didn’t believe I would be admitted”. When she arrived she found “the people here are extremely supportive and helpful and that outdid expectations”. 

She adds that Oxford events have fostered a “community of people and [an] environment where everyone wants to share experiences.” However, “[y]ou do feel very isolated – my longest stay abroad was Michaelmas term”. This is exacerbated by having her parents and grandparents back in Kyiv. 

There are many potential trigger points in Oxford. From overhearing Russian-speakers, to being presumed to speak Russian and like Russian culture, and people misunderstanding the situation. Sofia says this means there is “a constant feeling of danger actually here and anywhere abroad. Anywhere … outside Eastern Europe”. Thankfully, she adds, “college are being really supportive of students’ well-being”.

After arriving in Poland her “biggest shock was the civilian plane [at the airport] because I was scared of it. I have never seen a military plane but I have heard them. This plane was white, grey, and ridiculously big. All the people were so relaxed and living carefree as if there was no war in their town”. 

Sofia spent five months in Ukraine during 2022 and tells me that “people are trying to go on with their lives. They are attempting to find this war-life balance”. Generally, “[p]eople are succeeding”.

In response to whether she finds it hard to relate to people here, Sofia says she places people in several categories: “There are Ukrainians who were in Ukraine on the 24th of February. These people have a huge variety of experiences and I don’t understand all of them, but we are kind of together. [Then] there are Ukrainians who are not in Ukraine on the 24th of February. They’re kind of the same group as us however they don’t fully get it and sometimes they have the wrong story.”

The next category is “Eastern Europeans”, who can relate from Soviet times, as “they hate Russia”, but “they don’t get it either. They’re not supposed to get it. I don’t want them to get it. I don’t want anyone to get it”. The fourth group is people from post-colonial countries because “they hate colonialism”, but they do not have the same connection to Russia. This categorisation places many westerners firmly outside of any capacity to relate, and no more is this shown than in Sofia’s candid account of the outbreak of war. 

On the night before the war broke out, Sofia was due to go on a trip with her friend to a concert. She revounts how “in the taxi on the way to the train station we were reading the news and discussing it with our driver and trying to decide if we should go or not”. Then, “suddenly we heard an explosion. And you know, we hadn’t heard explosions before. We didn’t know what an explosion sounded like. And that explosion was pretty far away. It was outside the city. So it wasn’t very loud – wasn’t very clear. And you were like whoa, is this an explosion or is it not?” 

This continued when they arrived at the station and they went inside. Eventually they decided on their plans: “Well, why not? It’s not less safe than here. So we took the train.” Soon “we were sitting on the train, waiting for it to leave. And we heard another explosion. I was still not sure if it was an explosion. The third one. That one was louder but we were still not sure because there was no siren and no alert”. Sofia tells me that five minutes after each explosion a piece of news would confirm it as an explosion, “and we were still discussing our options when the train departed”. 

Once they arrived after many delays they found a cafe with wifi as Sofia needed to hold an online class “but only one person came and we decided not to have a class today because today is such a special day. You shouldn’t study”. Unsurprisingly the concert was cancelled and they went to the bus stop: “We took the bus that was about two or three hours late because of the shelling because the road was destroyed and the bus had to go through the fields. So you imagine the mental state of the driver.” 

Sofia and her freind made it to Lviv and spent a week renovating a bomb shelter which they immediately moved into. Sofia told Cherwell “I’m so glad I wasn’t alone”. 

Sofia’s stoicism is striking. She tells me she plans to go back to Kyiv during the Spring vacation. She is positive in her outlook and believes that Ukraine will be victorious. 

Sofia finishes the interview by noting that “war changes everything, especially your perception of life”. She continues: “Something I’d like to say to all the people helping Ukrainians is it depends on the person and on the trauma, but you cannot make it right. You can make it better. You will not make those people happy. You will make those people okay. You can help them to deal with their problems, but you can not solve them. And you cannot make them happy, just make them feel safe. And even if you do your best, they will still be extremely grateful. They will feel so much better.”

Daria Koltsova, another Ukrainian Scholar, is an artist focusing on social and political problems. She told Cherwell:  “Oxford gave me the opportunity to continue my practice, to keep working and be able to get a supportive, intelligent community to collaborate and discuss….Oxford is very supportive. However the whole country is. I came here from Germany and the difference is obvious.”

One trigger point for Daria  “is the idea that Ukrainian refugees are privileged”. Daria is an active figure on the Oxford art scene having held a talk in early February at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in Oxford. She told Cherwell: “All my art is built on artistic research about war, traumas, and resilience. I gathered bunches of stories. I worked with refugees and military people to create the projects, I engaged families of missing people, I analysed my own traumas and inter-generational traumas as well. For me art is a weapon and a chance to deal with my traumas, to sublimate. Now I’m working on four projects about war and colonial traumas.”

Looking towards the future Daria says: “I feel that we all changed too much, there are many years of hard work to restore the country. I feel myself a part of the lost generation and we now have so many challenges to overcome, to decide where to live, to be useful for the country and to find our ways to live a happy life. We will never feel safe again near Russia. I know that we will win, but the price is enormous, the best were killed, 60% got really serious psychological traumas, young people became injured, thousands of Ukrainian children were kidnapped to Russia. It sounds like an amount of work for 2-3 generations.”

Yaroslava Bukhta is also arecipient of the Ukrainian scholarship. She believes in the importance of the scholarship as “here we have the opportunity to represent Ukraine in the academic world and learn the skills and knowledge essential for the reconstruction of our country in the future”.

She adds: “It highlights the necessity of the decolonising of Ukraine as a locus of study – since in academia it is still often viewed through the lenses of ‘post-soviet’ rhetorics. Luckily, the changes are happening already, and we as Ukrainian scholars in Oxford are doing our best to be the drivers of those changes.”

Being in Oxford during the war is difficult: “In a sense, it is like living in two realities: in one of them you are pursuing a degree in the best educational institution in the world and doing your best to come out a great professional; in another one you keep monitoring the situation in your home country and worrying for your beloved ones.”

However, Yaroslava is upbeat. She told Cherwell: “Still, it is a daily reminder of what we are here for: to be able to build a better future for our country and the children of those who are now protecting Ukraine and the world by the price of their lives.

“On the 23rd February last year I had plans for work, studies and had work for my first masters degree. On the 24th we woke up at 5am from calls from our parents and switched on the news. It felt quite like a bad dream, it was very surreal and didn’t feel like it would last for a long term. But two, three weeks and months later you realise that it’s not a sprint, it’s a long term marathon.

“War is not an experience that any of us are ready for. Imagine normal life here in Oxford with lots of things going on around, and this is all suddenly interrupted by missiles that can kill your family and loved ones at any moment. Your friends take up arms and go to fight on the frontline. Life has changed completely. It goes on in a very different way than it used to be before the 24th February.

“I was in Ukraine when the war started. I spent the first two weeks under the Russian Occupation together with my family. We managed to escape. I went to Brussels to stay at my aunt’s place. I started working again in Brussels as a journalist as I thought it was important to bring a Ukrainian perspective into the Brussels media world. And to be able to speak about Ukraine and raise attention. Then I applied for my scholarship and came here.

“The scholarship I have here in Oxford emerged as a response by the University of Oxford to the beginning of the full scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. I believe the role of us 26 Ukrainian Scholars is to a greater extent make an influence in each of our fields, and to bring a Ukrainian perspective into these fields, something that has been absent for many, many years.

“Each of these bright minds can help to change the situation in the World. War in my country made me more sensitive to conflicts in other countries. It made me think more globally in a sense of the changes that each of us can make in our own countries, to make the world generally a better place within which to live.”

Asked what she would say to Oxford students, Yaroslava told Cherwell: “Each one of us here has an incredible opportunity not only to get something from this place, but also to meet so many people from different countries. My message would be to stay sensitive to the real world. The world doesn’t end at the walls of this University. These are real issues, real challenges, and real peoples’ lives [beyond these walls]. We have real power to influence those lives, so don’t waste your opportunity to make someone’s life better.”

Yaroslava believes a certain ‘war fatigue’ is setting in among the University, the Colleges and the wider Oxford community, and “therefore, we are trying to do our best to contribute to the war effort from abroad and appreciate any signs of help and solidarity coming from the Oxford environment”, with Friday’s  Peace Rally being a key part of this. 

Myroslava Hartmond is the Programme Coordinator for ‘Refugee Academic Futures’ at the Oxford Department of International Development. She told Cherwell: “The intake of 26 sanctuary scholars across 23 different colleges on the new Graduate Scheme for Ukraine Refugees, alongside other programmes that brought brilliant Ukrainians to Oxford — both students and fellows — is completely unprecedented. We have the highest number of Ukrainians studying and working at Oxford than ever before. At no point in the University’s history had there been a scholarship geared specifically towards Ukrainians.

“Some have voiced their concerns that Ukrainians had been given an unfair priority as white Europeans (by contrast with refugees from the Middle East and Africa in previous years), calling out systemic bias. However, the [University’s]dynamic response has demonstrated that the system can and must do more for refugees if they want to attract the best talent from around the globe, and a new infrastructure is being put in place to provide more financial, administrative, and welfare support for those applying to the University from a background of displacement.

“What’s more, if many endowments for national scholarships limit their yearly intake to one student, and Ukraine has been independent since 1991, then present numbers have given the country a chance to catch up. For so long, Ukraine has been in the shadow of its Soviet legacy and the colonial narrative of its eastern neighbour — Russia, benefiting from neither EU or Commonwealth frameworks.

“While both humanitarian and military aid remain essential to Ukraine as the war drags on, we see evidence of a new resilience and self-awareness developing in the mainframe of all Ukrainians — both at home and abroad. No matter where we find ourselves, a part of our mind and our heart is always with those people and places that we left behind. Thus, every Ukrainian shoulders a double burden, regardless of the benefits that displacement may bring in the form of free housing, financial support, or scholarships. Most Ukrainians I have spoken with intend to return home as soon as they are able, many have done so already.

“The war in Ukraine has put the country — its people, its culture — on the international agenda, and a year on from the start of the shocking events we must ensure that momentum is not lost in campaigning for a better representation of Ukrainian content in the public imagination, media discourse, academic curricula, [and] in museum collections. Working closely with Multaka-Oxford, the Refugee Studies Centre (which administrates the Ukrainian scholarship) has developed the first-ever after-hours tour of the Ukrainian exhibits in their important 500,000 item anthropological collection. This will be an effort to better the University’s understanding of Ukrainian material culture, as well as an effort to decolonize some of the narratives around it, frequently imported wholesale from Russian sources.”

Charlotte Farrar is a member of the refugee response initiative KHARPP, founded by Oxford alumnus Ada Wordsworth. She told Cherwell she took a gap year and first came to Przemyśl last summer. The city receives many Ukrainian refugees due to its proximity as the first major station after crossing the Ukrainian border.

Charlotte says that “there’s lots of people from all over the World who help people when they first arrive. The Ukrainians often don’t know where to go so we help them with their belongings and provide clothing and food”. KHARPP also has a project in Kharkiv directly helping Ukrainians manage their response on the ground. 

Charlotte first got involved at St Andrews Universirty, lobbying the Russian Department to add more Ukrainian elements to the curriculum. However, she says “I felt like that wasn’t really sufficient and as I have been studying Russian for 3 years now I wanted to do something useful with that”. Studying Russian has had implications for Charlotte. She told Cherwell:  ‘I think there’s sort of a strange balance at the moment, especially among people who speak Russian or study Russian. They have the feeling of sort of shame and how that perpetuates this imperialism and, you know, cultural domination, but at the same time, given the number of Ukrainians that speak Russian, it’s also a useful tool.”

Asked what she would recommend to Oxford Students wanting to help Ukraine, Charlotte told Cherwell: “There are many differing levels of involvement. I did a lot of stuff at the university and at the community level at first, and I think that was meaningful. We raised hundreds of pounds and sent them for military equipment. I also know people who have been hosting Ukrainian refugees.

“I think there are ways on a more local level to get involved to support Ukrainians, within your own community. But I think on sort of the higher level, you just need that first connection to use as a jumping off point.”

Charlotte says her Russian professors and Ukrainian friends within the department were her staying point: “Thankfully, within the UK, I think all the Russian departments are quite connected, so they knew KHARPP … I think just having that one connection is sort of enough. Also, finding organisations on social media is great as you can tell which ones are still active.” 

Regarding the future, Charlotte told Cherwell that  “there was a lot of talk, from Western analysts, about how we would see a huge flow of refugees coming out in December and January, because of power outages and the harsh winter”. However, “that really hasn’t materialised. There’s been a slight rise in the number of refugees coming out. But there also were a lot more refugees going back into Ukraine for the holidays”. With a new spring offensive planned by the Russians Charlotte says that “there could be an increase but most people are not equipped to really predict that [effect] accurately”.

Charlotte told Cherwell: “When the strikes on critical infrastructure started [in September] there was a big wave of refugees coming out of Ukraine. But there also was an anecdotal difference in the types of people who were leaving.  Prior to that it’s been a pretty good mix of ages and people with children, people without children, lots of older people and also people crossing the border for travel or to go grocery shopping and things like that. After those first strikes in the first week, every single person we saw coming off the train had a young child so I think there are certainly moments where I’ve seen sort of a major, at least visual, difference in the types of people who are leaving.”

The outlook from Poland is positive. Charlotte says “everyone sort of talks about when Ukraine wins the war, because ‘we know it’ll happen’, and then fills in the blank of this sentence after that”. She speaks of someone she met who was returning to Ukraine: “I asked: Why have you chosen to go back? ‘Oh, well, I really need to work. I couldn’t work where I was staying. So I’m returning to Western Ukraine. Plus, I know that when the war ends, which the Ukraine will win and it will be soon, then it will be worth being home anyway’.” This is part of what Charlotte  calls “the sort of the self-sustaining ideology of people and most Ukrainians I come into contact with”.

There are disparities in the treatment of refugees, and as 50% of the volunteers are Polish local customs are translated into this work. “There are quite a lot of Roma, Sinti people who have left Ukraine since February 24, or who have been in Poland and back to Ukraine and sort of migrated between the two. Roma, Sinti people do face racism in Poland and in the majority of Europe, and from white Ukrainian refugees themselves”. She adds that “they have an especially hard time accessing benefits as refugees. They’re often not allowed into the shelters for ‘safety reasons’. And they often have to argue with people in order to secure food or clothing”. This is “quite a major issue that I don’t think has been covered a lot in Western media but beyond that, generally there’s a pretty welcoming spirit toward Ukrainian refugees”.

Charlotte remebers an elderly woman from Kharkiv who arrived in Poland in September: “She arrived with nothing, she didn’t have a phone, she just had a piece of paper with her daughter’s name on it and a phone number because her daughter was living in Germany. She told me that her husband and her mother had been left behind in Ukraine, and that her husband was there to take care of her mother because this woman was quite old. Her mother was extremely elderly and not in any condition to travel. And the woman had been staying there with her family and had sent her daughter away but had stayed herself because she didn’t want to leave. I think it’s quite a common sentiment, especially among the older generation who feel they’ve built their homes in Ukraine. They would rather die there than in some strange place abroad.  But then finally, when the other houses right around her rural village had been bombed, and then her house was shelled and essentially destroyed, she finally decided to leave.”

Charlotte is originally from Tucaloosa, Alabama and tells me of the experience her family had sponsoring her Ukrainian friend: “I think especially given the international reputation of Alabama, one probably wouldn’t expect there would be an incredibly warm welcome for a refugee who speaks limited English. Of course, I think as we’ve seen with all or the majority of Ukrainian refugees since February, there is an element of race at play but nonetheless, we weren’t really sure how it would go.”

Her friend is now working at the local bakery and is settling in well. Charlotte says that  “seeing people in this fairly small community in Alabama come together to help this woman was quite heartwarming”.

Charlotte is also working with Dattalion, a witness database that aims to document Russian war crimes, and also stories of human resilience. There are 170 unique accounts on the database, many that cannot be included as a result of their content. The sheer personal toll of the war becomes evident with each one. 

One example is from Dnipro, from the founder of a glass company ‘OKME Ukraine’: “Since the first days of the war, he has been helping the Ukrainian military with his own funds and with the funds of his business partners. He sends cars, body armour, helmets, goodies for soldiers, copters, generators, binoculars, sights to the front. In most cases, assistance goes to the 93rd separate mechanised brigade – Kholodniy Yar – and to the intelligence of the 239th battalion. They will help rebuild accommodation in Chaplyno. After the rocket fire there, windows and panes were broken. Windows are now being installed in several apartments. And they also help a woman who took care of her 8 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

Another account from Dnipro is that of an accountant and mother: “The woman’s family was at home when the rocket exploded near their house at 100 Kalynova Street. The woman covered her daughter with her body. The shock wave broke all the windows in the house. The crater from the rocket was formed 20 metres from the house. The second rocket hit the building of the Ukrtelecom enterprise.”

There is a more positive story  from a Donetsk serviceman who lived with his family in Mariupol: “When the war started, he joined the ranks of the Armed Forces. The couple has been married for a long time, they are raising a daughter, but when he was wounded in Azovstal, he promised his wife to get married in the church. The man fulfilled his promise. In Dnipro, the serviceman entered into a church marriage with his wife. She and her daughter miraculously managed to get out of Mariupol. Both said goodbye to life more than once.”

Finally, Cherwell interviewed Florin Musiuc, a Romanian engineer who now lives and works in Hertfordshire. Cherwell first spoke with Florin a year ago to learn more about the Romania-Ukraine refugee crisis. Florin fundraises in the UK to support his friends back in his hometime of Gura Humorului in Romania, near the border with Ukraine. The neighbouring town, Siret, is a popular crossing point to Ukraine.

The situation in Florin’s hometown is ‘fluid’ but, a year on, “things are quite organised now, compared to the first weeks, and we just don’t notice as much…. It is a continuous process, they come and go”. Florin adds that It goes up and down with the way the conflict is…. Most of the refugees are from the South of Ukraine like Odesa, or Western cities like Lvov, or Kyiv”. 

Asked what happened to the 60 families his contacts in Gura Hymorului were hosting, Florin told Cherwell: “At least one or two families have stayed since last time we spoke. These are families with young children who decided to stay after getting attached to one another. Some have decided to go back home, or stay in Romania, or transit to relatives in Poland and other European countries.”

The Ukrainians are “very grateful generally”. Florin says that “I have seen some photos from the summer time when some families left. The children prepared some paper with ‘Thank You’ drawn with coloured in Romanian and Ukrainian flags and they posted the papers on the car windows. It was very emotional when they left”. Apparently the Ukrainians always have destinations in mind before they leave, mainly in Western and Southern Europe. Florin says that they have names and contact numbers for “each and every” Ukrainian they have hosted over the past year, surmounting to hundreds.

Last year, Florin told Cherwell about the Ukrainian DJs he followed on Instagram who were using their platforms to raise awareness. The DJs are still releasing music. Now, however, “whenever they upload, they say ‘this has been done through the power cuts’, or that ‘it wass difficult to finish this track as you never know when the power is going off or when it will be back on’”.

As Gura Humorului is a small town and not a major city, refugees generally transit through. Florin notes that “there is also not much opportunity and the economy couldn’t absorb that many workers. But in other big cities a lot of them got jobs in IT, barbering, beauty or whatever. There’s a lot of them who decided to settle in and decided to stay”.  Asked if those who do decide to stay are welcome, Florin says yes.

Florin is thankful that financial support is now available for refugee hosts: “So there is definitely not as much financial pressure as it used to be in the first few weeks. The rich ones, they did not expect to be hosted by locals – they actually booked all the luxury hotels – they are the lucky ones per say. They had enough resources to get on with their lives. Then there are the poor ones who are not as privileged so they do have to rely on the empathy and support [of Romanians].”

Surprisingly, Florin says that “a lot of Ukrainians decided to go back – as while the war is still unpredictable, it is more predictable than it used to be in the beginning phases. Those who are less exposed or at lower risk of being attacked have decided to go back to their homes and get on with their lives”.

Florin says that “a month ago there was a 20km queue of lorries (and vans) trying to cross the border back into Ukraine”. A lot of the grain exports are being done via roads and “so lots of lorries from Ukraine and Romania waiting to go in and out of Ukraine transporting the grains to the ports in SE Romania”. The cause of the queue is the inability of the border point infrastructure to cope with the huge increase in crossings. 

Asked if, looking ahead, the people in Romania are fearful of escalation, Florin told CherwellI: “Of course, there is concern over the way this will go, but far more concern during the summer time, whenever the nuclear threat was escalating. Generally, the population is a bit more optimistic, judging by the fact that the war didn’t go as well as the Russians expected, but you never know for sure with these things – it can go either way.”

Asked whether Russia is looking for a way out, Florin says: “Unfortunately I think Russia is on a one way road – they could pull out but that would be the end of Putin’s reign.”

Western support is a “major factor” in the conflict. Asked whether people are looking on NATO, the UK, the US and other partners favourably, he says: “The vast majority have a positive opinion on them…. [However,] of course, there are voices that claim neutrality, but we know that neutrality doesn’t work in this particular case because technically Ukraine was neutral and Moldova is a small state with insignificant army and is officially neutral but they do fear.” The possibility of unrest in the Balkans worries Florin  as “this would be an inter-ethnic conflict and generally these last longer than conventional war”.

Following these conversations, Cherwell was invited to a special showcase at the Pitt Rivers Museum for Ukrainian Scholars which brought cultural identity to the fore. The museum aims to showcase Ukrainian culture, but is aware that “we need to be told of our mistakes”. Many Ukrainian objects are labelled as Russian, and this outreach aims to strengthen communication to correct this. This is a sensitive topic for Ukrainians, conscious that the Russian labelling of objects stems from a past, but still relevant, Imperial Russia. There are 30 Ukrainian objects identified so far in the Pitt Rivers, but without much context and meaning. One particularly striking object is the Kamyana Baba stone sculpture created in the eleventh-century. Some scholars have raised the concern that fighting in the war is destroying many of these sculptures still in Ukraine. 

Oxford’s role in helping Ukrainians has not gone unnoticed. In late January Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov personally thanked the people of Oxford for their support. Citing the common bonds between the cities with “long university traditions”, he said that “Kharkiv and Oxford have a lot in common, for they are centres of education and science, culture and art of their regions…. [In Oxford we] see an opportunity to involve best practices of world experts in the restoration of Kharkiv”.

The war in Ukraine has profoundly reshaped the political landscape, and as with any major global event, it is always necessary to give the conflict a human face. Cherwell would like to thank all of the interviewees who made this article possible. Your time is greatly appreciated. 

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