Wednesday, February 23, 2022. 7:00 p.m. in California. I was in my room at San Jose State University when I received a news notification that Russian President Vladimir Putin was giving a live speech. Twenty minutes later, I was watching footage of Russian ballistic rockets bomb Ukrainian cities, including my hometown of Kyiv. In those twenty minutes, my life changed to the before and after.
When the attack began, my father and two sisters were asleep in our house in Kyiv. A huge explosion on the nearest airfield woke them around 5:20 a.m. The next day, the first groups of Russian troops appeared just a few kilometers from my grandmother’s apartment. That night, a Russian bomber was shot down a kilometer from my family’s house. One of my friends, who is a year younger than I am, was conscripted because of his military education. Another friend spent several days under occupation. Attack helicopters flew overhead as he watched Russian troops from his window. Another friend and her family spent several days trapped without food and electricity because of the risk of being killed on the streets. Almost every day, I listened to my mother cry. I had no way to help her other than with words.
The first several days were like a nightmare. I slept only three or four hours a night. I didn’t eat for two days. I read the news and spoke with family and friends. I was only able to distract myself to work on class assignments when it was night in Ukraine.
I felt helpless, stressed, and ashamed for not being there. I donated all the money in my Ukrainian bank account to organizations aiding Ukraine, particularly Come Back Alive (comebackalive.in.ua). I took on the role of calming friends and family, informing them of what I read about the situation. I shared what I’d learned in my studies of military and political situations. I didn’t show my own fear. After two weeks of calming other people, I felt apathy toward everything. I was mentally exhausted.
I lost the desire to study. I was still attending classes and had three exams the first week. They didn’t go well. My grades fell. I couldn’t focus for more than two minutes, and assignments took longer to complete. I am grateful that nearly all my professors gave me extensions. English became harder to speak, fatigue made me feel as if I were walking in a dream, and I couldn’t concentrate enough to speak it correctly. At the same time, though, I was counting the hours from the beginning. As I write this, it is day forty-nine.
Every other Ukrainian international student I know, in many countries of the world, has also experienced constant stress and fear, sleep deprivation, nutritional problems, an inability to focus, a lack of desire to study or do anything, and shame for being so far away. These are in addition to the student and life problems we already struggle to handle.
The worst part is that the ongoing war continues to influence everything in our lives, and even when it ends, it will continue to affect us. In the immediate future, I still need to decide what I will do when summer comes. I can’t return home to Kyiv. My family has been completely separated. My closest relatives are in six different parts of the world, and we don’t know when we will see each other again—probably it will be possible only when this war ends.
Photo: Volodymyr Zhukov (right) with his family at home in Kyiv, Ukraine