People gather for a recent protest in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (Photo provided)

Valeriia Rohoza is a second-year undergraduate studying computer science and physics at Northwestern University. She grew up in Chernihiv, Ukraine, which has a population of over 200,000 and sits just 60 miles from the Russian border. 

Back in 2018, when she was still living at home in Chernihiv, Rohoza started volunteering at a local youth center in her hometown. The first event she staffed for the center was a children’s film festival, where her job was scanning tickets. She met one of her best friends to this day while working at the festival, and they both continued going to the youth center every week to play board games or help organize other volunteer events. 

A couple of years later, Rohoza received a scholarship to attend Northwestern through an organization called Ukraine Global Scholars, which helps connect low-income Ukrainian students to universities around the world. 

Last week, she was sitting in a study room in Evanston working on a computer science assignment when “everything changed,” she said. She checked her phone and saw news that the Russian army had begun an invasion into Ukraine at the direction of President Vladimir Putin.

Within days, Chernihiv became the site of some of the most violent destruction and fighting between the two countries. On Feb. 28, Rohoza heard that a Russian rocket had hit her beloved youth center where she had volunteered so many times. 

“It was the place where good things always happened, and now it’s destroyed,” she said. “A lot of people are really mad about it because the building has been there for more than 50 years, and now it’s just destroyed.”

According to BBC News, Russian missiles launched on Rohoza’s hometown have killed dozens of civilians in recent days. The destruction has reached a kindergarten classroom, the youth center, the city square and a dentistry, among other locations. 

Like Rohoza, Neonila Glukhodid is a Northwestern student from Ukraine, a first-year political science doctoral student who earned her undergraduate degree from a university in western Ukraine. She grew up in Netishyn, a small factory town in the western part of the country, where her family continues to live as the war rages. 

“In a way, I’m thinking that I don’t even feel any more like I’m from western Ukraine because I don’t see this difference between west, east, center,” Glukhodid said in an interview with the RoundTable. “To me, it [Ukraine] is one thing. Every square inch of Ukrainian soil that has been hit by Russians is like hitting my home personally, hitting me personally.”

Glukhodid said she has friends in Kharkiv, the second largest city in the country, and other towns where street fights, air raid sirens and explosions occur daily. One of her best friends has two kids, ages 4 and 7, whom she has to carry down into a bomb shelter or train station whenever a siren goes off. 

Explaining bombs, missiles and war to children that young is practically impossible, Glukhodid said, and because the kids will not fully understand the situation, it might be better to not tell them so they feel safer. That is the dilemma her friend is facing right now, Glukhodid said.

She has also observed that many Ukrainians living abroad, like herself, have experienced more panic than people actually in Ukraine because they feel powerless to help their friends and family.

“My mom said that ‘Of course, we are here. We are directly under fire, so we have to mobilize. We can’t afford to panic. In our head, it’s like OK, now you have to think.’ But because of the relatively safe situation people have abroad, they probably can afford to panic or be more scared,” Glukhodid said. “Maybe it’s my mom trying to be strong for me.”

In the meantime, both Glukhodid and Rohoza have tried to channel their anxiety over the war into something productive. Glukhodid helped organize a group of students and professors who painted the Northwestern Rock with the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag, while Rohoza and other Ukrainian undergraduates have raised more than $10,000 for humanitarian and defense aid in just over a week.

Rohoza and other Northwestern students raised money for humanitarian and defense aid by selling candy, pastries and pins. (Photo provided)

Unlike Rohoza and Glukhodid, Evanston resident Vita Levchenko has lived in both Canada and the United States for over 20 years. She grew up in Lviv, the largest city in western Ukraine, and her uncle and cousins still live in the suburbs outside the city. When the Russian invasion started, they found a group of distant relatives to stay with in a little village closer to the border with Poland. 

When reminiscing about her hometown, Levchenko said she thinks about the walkable cobblestone streets of the city’s old quarter, markets selling coffee and fresh bread and the smell of strawberries in the air during harvest season.

“Just those cobble streets, they are stuck in my memory, all those routes I would take each day,” she said. “Walking to work and taking different routes, exploring interesting detours with old streets and stumbling upon abandoned little churches you’ve never seen before, or very interesting historical places you’ve never seen before, that’s what I love the most.”

And, although Evanston is thousands of miles away from Lviv, Levchenko said she has found a little slice of her Ukrainian roots here.

“Through all the places I’ve been to in Canada, in the United States, when I found Evanston, I started to feel home because something around here reminds me of Lviv a lot,” she said. “It’s not the same, but it’s just the modern streets and people and walkable areas and coffee shops. So I keep telling everybody I’m never going to leave Evanston. It’s my second home.” 

A list of organizations raising money and awareness for the war in Ukraine is available on this website.

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Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...