A group of Northwestern University undergraduate students, including several native Ukrainians and Ukrainian Americans, organized a candlelit vigil at Alice Millar Chapel on Thursday evening in honor of Ukrainian refugees around the world and those killed in Russia’s war on the democratic nation in eastern Europe.
The event featured speeches from Ukrainian students and professors who spoke about the anguish, fear and desperation experienced by their families, friends and all people across Ukraine since Russian soldiers invaded their home on Feb. 24. In the six weeks since the war began, well over 4 million people have fled the country, representing more than 9% of the nation’s total population of 44 million.
Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, the Crown Family Professor of Jewish Studies at Northwestern, spoke first after an introduction from Northwestern Chaplain Kristen Glass Perez. Petrovsky-Shtern was born in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital and the country’s largest city. He studied in Moscow and has taught college courses in Kyiv.
His 87-year-old mother, who fled the Nazi occupation of Ukraine when she was six years old, is still in the city. He also spoke about his colleagues in academia and journalism around the world who have upended their lives to help Ukrainian refugees or even go to the border to connect those leaving Ukraine with food, water and shelter.
“I haven’t seen this level of solidarity among different people and peoples in Ukraine and elsewhere,” Petrovsky-Shtern said. “I’ve never seen that level of self-dedication. That is something unparalleled and extraordinary. … Everybody in Ukraine is in the trenches, and I’m very grateful that you are coming here because, to some extent, we are all in the trenches. We are showing our solidarity with people who die and suffer and fight for yours and my freedom.”
After Petrovsky-Shtern’s speech and a performance of the Ukrainian anthem, Sonya Voloboi, a Northwestern undergraduate, shared her story of growing up in Massachusetts as a Ukrainian immigrant and going back to visit her relatives in Ukraine in December, just a couple of months before Russia invaded. She said she always felt out of place in the United States without her big extended family, and visiting the place where she was born with her mother was an incredible experience for her.
“Whenever people ask her [my mom] what it felt like to go back in December, she said that we were swimming in love.” Voloboi told the RoundTable. “And I think that’s a really accurate description because we came, and everybody was just so welcoming to us. Everybody stopped their life to entertain us and to meet up with us.”
Valeriia Rohoza, another undergraduate, also spoke about her family and friends in the city of Chernihiv, where she grew up and where a number of particularly brutal attacks have occurred during the war. Last month, missiles targeted a kindergarten building and a youth center where Rohoza used to volunteer.
In recent days, under siege from Russian forces, Chernihiv started to run out of food and basic resources for survival. Rohoza talked about the hunger and cold that her hometown faces amid life without power, cellphone service and supply lines.
After the speeches and prayers, Rohoza read names of Ukrainians who have died in the war while the audience lit candles in remembrance of the victims. The vigil ended with a minute of silence.
Soon after the invasion in February, Voloboi, Rohoza and other Ukrainian students at Northwestern organized an informal group dedicated to raising money for humanitarian aid in Ukraine. Through a number of different fundraisers around the campus and the city of Evanston, the group has already collected more than $15,000 for various philanthropic organizations offering aid to refugees and Ukrainian troops.
“I think all of us have just been using it as a coping mechanism,” Voloboi said. “There’s so much uncertainty, and there’s so much fear and anger and anxiety. Rather than lie in bed and scroll through the news all day, we’ve really been trying to put all of those negative emotions into work and into something that we hope is actually going to make a positive difference.”
More RoundTable coverage of war in Ukraine:
A Rotary perspective on Ukraine (March 9)