For a month and a half, much of the world has stood by in horror as Russia launched a full-scale military invasion on Ukraine, with Putin claiming the two countries are “a single whole,” in an era when humanity had seemingly outgrown such brute and disastrous tactics. Each day Ukraine continues to fight for its sovereignty, and Russian forces continue to pummel Ukrainian-held cities with devastating civilian attacks. I spoke with freshman Kamilla Haidaienko from Odessa, Ukraine, to learn how she is coping with the turmoil from afar and the state of her family, home in Odessa.
Haidaienko is part of a Ukraine Global Scholars program that assists high-achieving Ukrainian students get financially feasible admission into quality American universities, the idea being that they will return to Ukraine after college and benefit the country by contributing to the workforce. Haidaienko is pursuing architecture, so she will likely major in mathematics and art. She, like many, was drawn to Sewanee because of its natural beauty and isolation.
Haidaienko first learned of the invasion from a text on a groupchat for her UGS organization, saying simply, “It started.” At first glance she was confused, but then the reality dawned on her, given that “it’s been building up, the pressure.” It wasn’t just in the back of my mind, it was all over my head. We knew that [the invasion] was probably going to happen, but we didn’t know it was going to be a full scale war.”
When asked to what extent she is relieved to be so distanced from the conflict, versus feeling a pull to be home, she answered: “Both. While I’m here, my family does not have to worry about me being safe. But it’s like, when Americans are home they don’t really feel ‘American,’ they’re just like everybody else. But when you’re far away, you feel like you’re not home. That’s the normal state for me being in the U.S., but right now it’s much stronger, given that I don’t know if I’m going to have a home in a little bit… and I don’t know when I can go home. Right now I feel the fact that I am Ukrainian much more strongly.”
Haidaienko explained that, as of now, her family is safe at home, but the uncertainty of how long that fact will remain is what prompts the fear. She has a twin sister who is also studying abroad, in Poland, but the rest of her family members are still moving about their daily lives in Odessa, attempting to maintain some semblance of normalcy and distraction from the disorder. While it is a tremendous advantage to live in a time of advanced technology, in terms of ability to track the status of the war, she said, it is incredibly taxing to have the details of personal tragedy at one’s fingertips every hour of the day. “I am living two separate lives,” she said. Because at a certain point, she must stop consuming the news, and fully participate in her incredibly busy academic life.
One would imagine that an ongoing emotional weight of this magnitude would take a toll on social life, especially when those surrounding you are drastically more removed from the devastation than you. “I feel very disconnected from most people right now,” Haidaienko said. “I used to be the person that everybody goes to with their problems; I would listen to them and give them advice, take care of them. Right now, I still do that, but when people share something it feels…I cannot relate to them because their problems are big, but there are bigger problems.” She continues: “People can struggle with their own stuff, but when you’re staring at something like [the war], it changes your perspective. I know that when it’s over, Ukrainians will be the strongest mentally, because nothing comes near this.”
I mentioned that it must be angering to be amidst so many other teenagers who are either oblivious to or uncaring about the war. Haidaienko said, “It’s frustrating that it’s not that easy to get people to care about something. It’s a good thing to know, because it’s the same with climate change…people care about themselves. I feel more sad than angry.” However, even amidst unimaginable turmoil, Haidaienko, admirably, still cares deeply about the state of those around her. “I would like to share more about what I’m seeing everyday, what I’m reading about everyday, but then I don’t want anyone to go through anything like this, or feel even close to what [I am], so I limit the amount of stuff I put out into the world.”
In reflecting on our conversation, I am still both jarred and heartbroken by the initial experience of meeting this fellow freshman, who rode up to meet me on her bike with windswept hair, who shared my aversion to the American need to spend money to have fun, who shared in my preference to go on marathon walks in the woods with friends instead. And, when asked about her plans for the summer, replied “I don’t know if I will still have a home then. I don’t know if my family will be alive.” I was so jolted from my theoretical understanding of wartime and its effects, to the concrete anguish of hollow unknowing, and utter lack of control. Haidaienko’s ability to thoroughly maintain cognizance, rationality, and maturity, in a period of complete vulnerability was impressive to me, and allowed me a chance to move beyond the fleeting understanding of disaster from behind a blurry-eyed, computer screen, trance and towards an understanding on a human level that will stay with me permanently.