While Ukraine is physically distant from UTD, Russia’s continued invasion hits close to home for some Comets. Computer science sophomore Tayisiya Chernenko, who emigrated with her parents in 2007, fears for family members who have stayed in the country.
“My parents, uncles and almost all of my extended family is still there,” she said. “My grandparents are…working as volunteers, distributing aide that’s being sent deeper into the country.”
They previously lived near Zaporizhzhia, which is Chernenko’s birthplace, as well as the site of the nuclear power plant recently taken by Russian forces. While the family had originally sought cover near the Romanian border, Chernenko’s grandparents “couldn’t sit back” and decided to return to a larger city to help where they could. She hears from them every couple of days.
“I’m very proud of them for their bravery and choosing to stay, but I’m also very scared for their safety,” she said. “It’s been incredibly painful.”
Jessica Hanson-Defusco, an EPPS assistant professor and former Peace Corps volunteer, is similarly concerned about a close friend living in Ukraine. She met Viktor in Liberia, where he was working with the United Nations Mission in Liberia to train the nation’s police force to function in peacetime. He served in a similar capacity in South Sudan, among other regions recovering from war, before retiring, returning to his wife and family in Ukraine.
While he’s not currently in an area with much fighting, the conflict is constantly escalating, and as police chief he will be responsible for recruiting and training resistance forces. Defusco worries about the psychological toll of facing war in his homeland after so many years spent preventing it abroad.
“He’s just already been through so much, and to watch somebody who dedicated ten years of his life to helping other societies recover from war then have to face a war on his own home turf? It’s just tragic,” she said. “But he’s proud to be Ukrainian, and he thinks they can beat them back.”
For Chernenko’s family, it’s been one thing after another. A few years ago, they had finally saved up enough money to build their dream home in Zaporizhzhia—then it burned down. They just finished building a second house before the invasion began, but were forced to abandon it when war broke out, driving for 14 hours to escape Russian forces.
This year also marked Chernenko’s fourteenth of waiting for a green card. She was scheduled to fly to Eastern Europe in May to obtain it, but the Ukrainian Embassy closed down and informed her family that they would need to find another embassy in Europe to take their case. They spent the weekend after Russia’s initial attack writing letters.
“We probably wrote to 14 or 15 different ones. Romania, the Netherlands, Germany, everywhere, just to see who, what embassy would be willing to take our case,” she said. “A lot of them immediately said no, because they were having such a huge influx of refugees from Ukraine already—which is very much understandable, they are the ones who need immediate processing and help, as opposed to our case, which has just been on hold for a long time.”
Fortunately, Latvia has agreed to take their case; Chernenko is scheduled to fly there in May instead of to Ukraine. Still, she mourns the loss of the trip they had planned.
“I haven’t been able to leave the U.S. since we came here—it was just a part of, you know, being a refugee here—and I was so excited…my mom and I had talked about being able to visit the hospital while I was born and the school where she grew up and all of these places that meant a lot to her and to us as a family that I don’t remember. And I know that those places don’t, a lot of them just don’t exist anymore, or they’ll just never be the same way again. That is…devastating to think about.”
Defusco has witnessed similar stories over ten years of working with displaced persons. Oftentimes, there’s a separate psychological trauma associated with the lack of closure that people fleeing conflict often face when leaving home unexpectedly.
“Imagine if you had to walk right now to Mexico with nothing,” she said. “You think: ‘I’ll be able to go back.’ And then you find out your house has gone. Your family’s dead. Everything’s gone.”
In other migrants, there’s often an active choice to leave. Whether it’s for economic opportunity, political stability or various other reasons, the émigrés make that intentional “mental switch” to a new situation, away from their previous life. Those forced to flee from their homes, however, often don’t get to make that shift, enforcing a kind of psychological displacement as well as physical.
Keeping up with the conflict, her family and immigration situation on top of her regular course load has been stressful for Chernenko.
“I just–I don’t know how to explain how long 14 years of waiting is, and also how much I was worried about my grandparents. The first two or three days, all I was doing was on the news. I didn’t do anything, I didn’t eat,” she said. “I failed at least one exam for sure…I got an extension on a project, and I appreciate that.”
Fellow students have been helpful, especially through campus organizations. She credits the friends she has made through UTD Nebula, a software development club, as a vital support system, but places the emphasis on those struggling in Ukraine.
“I think I’ll bounce back, but we’ll see. It’s okay. The most important thing is, you know, just getting through it. Even if I fail a class, I can always take it later,” Chernenko said. “The people who really need help right now are in Ukraine, are at the borders. There’s people who don’t have medicine, who don’t have insulin right now. What’s the most important right now is spreading that information.”
“This is the moment. If you’re going to do stuff, go be active,” Defusco said. “Petition your senators and your congressmen to take action. Go volunteer; go fundraise. Because you’re going to look back and get to say, ‘I contributed to supporting one of the most important, if not the most important event that happened in the early 21st century’…you only have this one time. You can’t go back.”