Ukrainian voices at Vassar: Students reflect on war in Ukraine

Image courtesy of Karolina Naidon '26.

[Disclaimer: Certain grammatical and stylistic choices in this article have been adapted in accordance with Ukraine’s National Commission for State Language Standards ruling on capitalization of the names related to the Russian Federation as an act of Ukrainian resistance to Russian aggression.]


When I was 10 and lived in Donetsk, Ukraine, I knew about war from my babunia’s (great-grandmother’s) stories of her World War II childhood. I knew that war was frightening and dehumanizing. I knew that it fractured families, forced communities to hide and left deep scars. Yet, war was distant. I only came in contact with it when my babunia recalled the gigantic locomotive that took her away from her home and the potato scraps she had to eat, as food was scarce.

Shortly after my 11th birthday in 2014, strangers in uniforms flooded the streets of my city. When quiet nights in the steppe were disturbed by the roaring of russian Grad rocket launchers and the walls of our apartment shook from explosions, war was still distant. As if the violence that was occuring could not be called a war unless there was a formal announcement stated by invaders that they, driven by some made-up higher mission, decided to invade. But since the invaders came unannounced, we did not get to claim the label, only endure the violence.

In July 2014, my family packed one suitcase and left Donetsk. In the fall, I started school in Mariupol. On my first day, I met a girl who has since become my closest friend. Together, we prepared for math competitions and, when classes were interrupted by russian artillery attacks, we sat together on the floor of our school’s corridor, hands over our ears, chins tucked into our knees.

I was in Poughkeepsie when, eight years after russia invaded Ukraine and occupied my home, the so-called “Special Military Operation” was announced. In Feb. 2022, Putin told the world that it was the people of Donbas who asked him for salvation, though all these years it was his army that occupied our towns, destroyed our homes and terrorized us with artillery attacks. Hearing the speech, I felt nothing but disgust for the ruthless lies he used to justify his violent fantasies. Taken aback by this statement, the world was talking about the probability of russia invading Ukraine and the likelihood of a war. But one cannot measure the probability of something that happened years ago. Eight years after its beginning, the war in Ukraine was granted its rightful label.

The next day, I received a text from my mother, who now resides in Kyiv. “Valerie, keep calm,” she said with no context. No context was necessary. A text from my friend in Mariupol followed: “Mom woke us up and made everyone pack.” Russian violence was roaming through Ukraine with new force, leaving no safe place on the map. I sat down on the floor of my dorm’s hallway and wrapped my arms around my knees. At that moment on Feb. 24, 2022, war felt intimately familiar. I could feel it in my body even though I was thousands of miles away from it. 

A few days later, my friend in Mariupol stopped returning my texts and calls. In the spring of 2022, russia was bombing Mariupol around the clock, targeting infrastructure and residential neighborhoods. The residents of Mariupol were starved to death, buried under the rubble of their own homes and shot by russians as they tried to escape the city. The survivors describe that the destroyed buildings were moaning and crying for help for days. Some residents walked dozens of miles to escape russian occupation. On the day russia dropped an aerial-bomb on the Mariupol theater, killing over 600 civilians sheltering at the building, my friend texted me for the first time in weeks. Her family had managed to escape the besieged city. A Vassar alumna from Bulgaria kindly invited them to stay at her house. 

When “20 Days In Mariupol” came out, I avoided watching the movie because I feared seeing what russia did to the city that was once my refuge. When, driven by the same fear, I watched the movie, I recognized my friend’s apartment building and our school in many of the shots. Until very recently, we did not discuss what had happened to her in Mariupol. The first thing my friend shared with me was the food they ate in those weeks: two meals a day for seven adults consisted of a single pot of soup made from bare chicken bones, a cup of rice, half an onion and a potato. She also recalls their escape. Her parents heard from someone that a group of residents were planning to drive out of the city. They knew that, previously, russians killed those who attempted to do it. Still, they took their chance, as staying in Mariupol meant surrendering to the invaders. On the road, they encountered destroyed civilian cars; their phones and bags were searched at the russian checkpoints. But they kept driving to freedom.

Image courtesy of Valerie Malykhina ’25.


​​When I was still a teenager in middle school in 2014, Ukraine’s sovereignty was challenged by the russian occupation of Crimea and the Donbas region, the latter of which was located near my home city Dnipro. At that time, the city in general remained unharmed and welcomed refugees from areas affected by the occupation. Growing up in a relatively peaceful environment, no one in Dnipro could believe in the possibility of further russian occupation of Ukrainian territories. Whenever my international friends would question the position of Dnipro city in the case of further russian attack, my answer was always the same: Dnipro will always be a part of Ukraine. Little did I know that soon, the peace would end, and my home city would again be on the frontline, protecting Ukrainian freedom.    

On Feb. 24, 2022, my day started not from the usual phone alarm at 7 a.m. but from the sound of missile strikes in my home city at 5 a.m. At first, it felt surreal. I could not believe that this city with its beautiful fountains and gorgeous parks, filled with the cheerful laughter of children, would become full of fear and the sirens of ambulances that came from the frontline regions with seriously injured Ukrainian citizens and servicemen. After the first missile strikes, the local government introduced a curfew. The once-lively city of Dnipro, with a population of around one million, would be dreadfully silent and empty. For a couple of days, in such silence, the citizens would continuously hear the news about russian advances on Ukraine’s Southern territories. 

At that time, when everyone was starting to do something to bring their homeland one step closer to victory, I volunteered as a translator for various governmental organizations to raise awareness about the situation in Ukraine. Because of attacks on the residential areas in Kyiv, I was afraid to fall asleep at night. With the emotional transition from fear to determination, I continuously translated news day and night. The fear would not leave Dnipro city. Seeing how russian servicemen erased Ukrainian cities from the surface of the Earth, the city continued to welcome more refugees from Eastern Ukraine. 

When I was planning to evacuate from Ukraine to pursue my studies at Vassar, the evacuation trains stopped leaving Dnipro city because of russian missile strikes on the train stations full of internally displaced people. Because of the attacks, only a few days later, the stations started to post the train schedule, but only at night. Once, when my family saw the train scheduled to head to Poland, my mother and disabled grandmother made a very difficult decision. They decided to let me evacuate Dnipro on my own and remain in the city near the front line. Early in the morning, my mother helped me quickly pack one small bag of luggage with the most necessary things and bid me farewell at the train station. 

When I boarded the train, I happened to stay in a place full of refugees from occupied regions, most of whom had lost their homes and loved ones because of russian attacks. While we were going to Chelm, one of the Polish cities located close to Western Ukraine, we needed to go through the Kyiv region at the end of our first day of evacuation. As the region was partially occupied by russian forces, the train workers were trying their best to leave the region unharmed. The train came late to the Ukrainian-Polish border, where we mostly stayed inside for nine hours, due to safety concerns. Then finally, after two days of evacuation, we managed to come to Chelm.  

I lived for a month in Poland, continuously changing locations from one city to another. Afterwards, I went to the Netherlands and became the Programme Officer at United Way the Netherlands, responsible for a Ukrainian women refugees’ project focused on adaptation to the Dutch environment and finding a home away from home. In the meantime, with the complete retreat of the russian army from the Kyiv region, the world saw the true nature of “russian peace” in cities such as Bucha and Irpin. While I continued translating the news about russian atrocities in the region for the governmental agencies, I could see what a high price Ukrainians were (and still are) paying for defending their right to independence. But, despite all the atrocities that russia has caused on Ukrainian land, every Ukrainian citizen believes in victory and that everything will be Ukraine (all will be well).

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