Eastern Europe conflict reaches beyond borders

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A Michigan State University professor says the war in Ukraine is a fresh chapter in a 250-year-old story that Russia is using to justify its invasion.

Michigan State University Associate Professor Matthew Pauly said the conflict between Ukraine and Russia has a complicated history, going back to 1774 when Ukraine was initially part of the Russian empire.

“Ukrainians have been in a long war,” Pauly said. “This is not the beginning of the war in 2022, this is merely an escalation.”

Pauly, a historian of Ukraine, Eastern Europe and Russia, said Russian President Vladimir Putin believes Ukraine is not separate from Russia and that Ukrainians and Russians are the same people.

“Ukrainians of all different ethnicities, of all different linguistic persuasions are taking to arms to defend their homeland, and the choice for them is quite simple, really,” Pauly said. 

“Do you have an independent state in which democracy, as imperfect as it is, is allowed to exist and you have the right to freedom of the press, the right to all of these key things that we assume to be integral to our democratic experience? Or do you have the imposition of an authoritarian dictatorship in which censorship is endemic and political choice in elections is a farce?”

Russia’s invasion hurts individuals and families across the globe. As fighting continues after more than two months, millions of Ukrainians have been displaced, and violence spreads through cities and residential areas. While the world watches in disbelief, many in the United States have tried to help however they can, whether they are close relatives or complete strangers, despite being more than an ocean away.

Hitting close to home

When Michigan State University junior Tina Deychakiwsky first heard that Russia had invaded Ukraine, she said she didn’t feel it was real. As soon as the news registered, she was filled with anger and immediately did everything she could to immerse herself in her culture.  

         “Right away I put on anything Ukrainian that I had,” she said. “I was only listening to Ukrainian music, just indulging myself in my own culture that I grew up with.”

Deychakiwsky’s parents grew up in Ukraine and now live in the United States. Her aunt, uncle and cousin on her mother’s side were living in Ukraine at the time of the invasion. While she is unsure of the status of her father’s family, she said her aunt and cousin are safe and staying with a family in Italy, and her uncle is still living in Kyiv.

         “My mom grew up in Ukraine in Kyiv and Lviv,” she said. “Growing up as a child, I went to Ukrainian school on Saturdays, every Saturday. We’ve always been very immersed in our culture. We celebrate holidays like Christmas and Easter the way you would traditionally.”

         Being in the United States and witnessing the violence in Ukraine sometimes makes Deychakiwsky, and others in the Ukrainian diaspora, feel a stab of guilt or helplessness.

         “We’re Ukrainian, but we’re here,” Deychakiwsky said. “We have warm beds and food and water, and our lives aren’t threatened at every second. Sometimes it does feel a little helpless to be all the way over here. We can scream and show our support … but it’s not like we can actually be there fighting at the front lines.”

         While she can’t fight alongside people in Ukraine, Deychakiwsky said she knows that every action is a good action, and she has found many ways to support Ukrainians from thousands of miles away. These actions include writing to government officials, signing petitions, sending donations to reliable sources and staying educated on the situation.

         “You don’t have to give money to support Ukraine,” she said. “There are so many small ways to support Ukraine. Listen to music by Ukrainian artists, wear a little blue and yellow, show up to rallies if you can, or even just check in on your friends that are Ukrainian.”

Jack Moreland

Tina Deychakiwsky joined other Michigan State students on campus on March 1 to protest Russia’s invasion

Deychakiwsky has attended multiple pro-Ukraine protests, which she describes as heartwarming and comforting. She traveled to Lansing, Detroit and Chicago to show solidarity with Ukraine. 

“It’s very beautiful to see how many people recognize the issue and care,” Deychakiwsky said. “At each protest I’ve been to I’ve seen familiar faces as well from the Ukraine community, which has been very comforting. It kind of feels lonely sometimes. We can all relate the most on the pain we’ve been feeling.”

She encourages everyone to attend protests, whether they are of Ukrainian descent or not.

“Show your support in any way that you can,” Deychakiwsky said. “Give your emotions, that’s OK. Don’t be afraid to show up and don’t feel like you’re stepping in … if you’re not Ukrainian. It’s never too much to show your support in any way.”

Deychakiwsky said she wishes more people understood the seriousness of the invasion. She labeled the fighting as an “existential war,” a war for  the existence of Ukraine and Ukrainian people.

“That’s why Ukraine can’t just ‘give up’ or surrender, because that means there would be no more Ukraine,” Deychakiwsky said. “I want people to know that Ukraine has been on the way to fixing its own issues within the country, and it will be able to even more if it exists.”

As people share posts on social media, Deychakiwsky said she wishes more people understood the reality of what is happening to Ukrainian citizens. She also said she wishes less misinformation and Russian propaganda was being believed and shared.

“I think that if more people understood the atrocities occurring, that they will have more of a sense to also empathize and fight with Ukraine,” she said. “There are things happening that no human should ever face, especially children. We can’t desensitize ourselves to the true horrors happening there.”

Deychakiwsky said she wants Ukrainian citizens to know that they have not been forgotten by people around the globe. If she were able to reach everyone living in Ukraine she would want to say:

“We are doing everything we can, you have not been forgotten, and we see the pain you’re going through, and we will not stop fighting for you. I believe that Ukraine will win this war and I’m very proud of the bravery we’ve all been seeing. And it makes me, even here in America, it makes me so proud to be Ukrainian to see how Ukrainians have stood up against the monsters fighting them.” 

Planned adoption, unplanned invasion

Sarah and Tony Witbrod have filled their hearts and their home in the state of Wyoming with children adopted from all over the world. In February, they made a journey to Ukraine to adopt two children with special needs. When the couple landed in eastern Europe, they realized that their luggage had been lost. At the time, this seemed like the worst-case scenario. Although the two were eventually reunited with their bags, their trip did not get any less complicated.

As the Witbrods arrived in Ukraine on Feb. 20, Russian President Vladimir Putin was amassing Russian troops at the Ukrainian border. Even with the potential threat of an invasion, the Witbrods were steadfast in adopting.

“No one there expressed any form of worry about Putin invading,” Sarah Witbrod said.

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Unfortunately, they were incorrect. The Witbrods adopted their children just a day before Putin launched his invasion on Feb. 24. Their next challenge was to get home to the United States. With airports in Ukraine shutting down, the couple and their children had to travel across eastern Europe to find a way out.

“We waited in line to go to Moldova,” Sarah said. “There were all these people coming with suitcases to the border. They were lining up, women were saying ‘goodbye’ to men. It was just a really, really sad thing to watch.”

Once they were out of Ukraine, the family made their way through Moldova and into Romania to catch a flight to Poland where they could leave for the United States. While they were farther from the fighting, the Witbrods still had to keep moving.

“We still hadn’t left yet,” Tony Witbrod said. “We were out of Ukraine, in Moldova, in Romania, but we just needed to make it to Poland without any more hassle.”

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Once they made it to Poland, the Witbrods were stuck for a week, waiting on medical tests they needed to validate the adoptions. They recalled massive lines at the U.S. Embassy and thousands of refugees trying to find somewhere to stay, including a tent city that was beginning to be set up as the family passed. Despite the challenges, the Witbrods and their two new children were able to finally return home to their six other children on March 5, a week after Russia’s invasion had begun.

The Witbrods are not strangers to challenging adoptions. Two of their children came from the Congo, and the Witbrods picked them up in the midst of violence resulting from the first free election in the country. Before they had arrived for the two children, the Witbrods had been dealing with repeated losses of other children they had been planning to adopt who passed away in the rural orphanage. Sarah Witbrod described how that adoption process had inspired them to try again.

“You ask why we were there … I think because of all the loss, really,” she said. “We know that life is fragile and that things happen. That’s really why we went knowing it [the invasion] was a possibility. We also know that if you don’t show up for the kids, they’re not always there.”

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The Witbrods were especially concerned for their children from Ukraine, both of whom have disabilities. On their way out of the country, the Witbrods were aware of others helping to get children to safety. These groups of children, however, were, as far as the Witbrod’s knew, all healthy and capable.

“Not to make it overdramatic, but there’s a chance that Caius would’ve been sitting in his crib and they would have been like, ‘What’s the point?” Tony said. “They might’ve decided to leave him there.”

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The family still worries about the children with disabilities left in Ukraine. The man that helped connect the Witbrods with the children in the orphanage, Serge Zevlever, had been making the arrangements. The Witbrods learned that Zevlever had been killed in combat after volunteering to fight for his country. They also said that Alex and Julia Mudryk, who had helped get them out of Ukraine and eventually on the flight to Poland, also returned to fight. The Witbrods said this was not surprising of the Ukrainians.

“There’s no way Putin will win this because all of those people will fight until the very last one,” Sarah said. “They’re not gonna go easy. And if he does end up taking the country, they’ll never serve him or ever stop fighting.”

While fighting persists in Ukraine, the Witbrods are now making  regular doctor visits to make sure their new children are healthy and cared for. Each night they say goodnight to all eight of their children in the language of their birthplace. Now they have added a fourth language, telling each of their two new children, “na dobranich,” a Ukrainian goodnight.

Book drive for Ukrainian refugees

Millions of people have fled to neighboring countries such as Poland and the Netherlands. These countries have been providing for all of the Ukrainian refugees that have been displaced from this tragic war. 

  Rhea Wyse and Matthew Tiacharoen, third-year College of Human Medicine students at Michigan State University, began a book drive to help refugees in Ukraine. Dr. Monica van der Ridder is Wyse,  Tiacharoeans’ mentor, is based in the Netherlands. 

“A bunch of refugees had recently arrived at her house and some of her neighbors’ houses,” said Wyse.

Wyse said, “We were thinking of ideas for how we could help and we thought, ‘What is better than doing a book drive?’”

 Wyse said the goal is to provide Ukrainian refugees with books to allow them to continue their education and to take their minds off what is going on around them. The drive will help many women and children who have been forced away from their homes. 

“Knowledge is power,” said Wyse.“A lot of the refugees are women and children and the children are not in school … books are a way to keep the kids educated and learning.”

“I think when anyone is in a really terrible situation … being able to immerse yourself in a book and being able to relate to some of the stories that you are reading about can help psychologically, mentally and it also just keeps the brain working because trauma is real,” said Wyse. 

Wyse said that it was amazing to see many people as well as the Michigan State community come together and support such a good cause so quickly.

The drive has received almost $400 in donations and has also recently partnered with the Flint Literacy project to provide more books and resources to the refugees of Ukraine. They are also searching for books written in Ukrainian and donating them. 

“Obviously, the refugee crisis is still going on … just because we are not thinking about it … it’s still a very real situation and the need is still there. The need is ever-present,” said Ryse. 

The book drive has no end date and is still accepting donations. Donation information is available here. The goal of the book drive is simple for Wyse and Tiacharoen: “Get as many books as we can.”

Any end in sight?

Professor Pauly said a peace agreement is unlikely because Russia “doesn’t want it” and Ukraine “can’t give up large parts of the country” as Russia is demanding. He said he has no doubt Ukraine will succeed in the long term, especially with military supplies from NATO countries. 

“The prospect remains that Ukraine wins this war and I think we should consider that very real prospect and then true peace might be achieved,” Pauly said. “And the question will be ‘who’s going to pay for all the damage?’ How much is Russia going to be held responsible for these horrific war crimes that have undoubtedly been carried out by Russian soldiers in the name of a totally unprovoked, heinous war?”