Attacks on Ukraine ignite UF student support

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Every time Roksolana Nykytiua gets a text message from her mom in Ukraine, she said her heart jumps out of her chest.

For the past two weeks, her morning routine has consisted of waking up, checking her phone and messaging her Ukrainian friends and family members to check in on them. 

The 25-year-old University of Florida student is just one of many Ukrainians in Gainesville panicking over the war in their home country. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, Gainesville residents have banded together in solidarity to understand the war, attend peaceful demonstrations and fundraise to send money to displaced Ukrainian citizens. 

Amid the feeling of loss, Nykytiua decided that even as a newcomer to Gainesville, she could be the one who spreads awareness of the invasion. Nykytiua, an exchange student who arrived at the University of Florida two months ago, said she often felt alone. The start of the war in her home country worsened her loss of community again. 

“There was a lot of helplessness, a lot of despair and a lot of anger and hate and fear,” she said. “And then… I had this switch point — I was like we got to do something about it.”

Nykytiua stood proudly at Turlington Plaza with blue and yellow signs on Feb. 28. Even if she did not have a community beside her, she had a community back home to support. That’s when students of Ukrainian descent walked up to her, grabbed signs and followed her lead.

Gainesville residents hold signs in Turlington Plaza on the University of Florida campus protesting the invasion of Ukraine. (Isabella Douglas/WUFT News)

“We just want to make people understand that it’s not just about Ukraine,” Nykytiua said.   “It’s about our generations standing united for democracy; for being able to have a choice of being able to have a normal government or being able to help each other when it’s needed.”

Embroidered flowers decorate Sasha Nelson’s traditional Ukrainian blouse and blue and yellow ribbon are braided into her hair. Nelson, 19, was one of the organizers for the peaceful demonstration on March 3 to spread awareness about the war in Ukraine and collect donations for the country’s soldiers.

“It was really difficult to know that there’s only a certain amount of things that we can do,”  she said. “I’m doing OK, but it’s difficult for every Ukrainian right now.”

Century Tower, a landmark on UF’s campus, was illuminated yellow and blue to show solidarity and support for Ukrainian students.  

“As we watch the events unfolding in Ukraine today, we are thinking of our Ukrainian students and praying for peace for the entire region, ” UF President Kent Fuchs tweeted on the day of the invasion. 

The Bob Graham Center for Public Service also hosted a panel discussion with four UF experts to discuss the conflict. UF department of political science professor Zachary Selden said he hasn’t seen this much agreement globally since the days immediately after 9/11. 

“Russia, regardless of what happens militarily in Ukraine, has lost in the larger, strategic picture already,” Selden said.

A traditional Ukrainian flower crown lays upon Grace Tovkach’s head. Tovkach is Ukrainian American and, at first, didn’t feel like she had the right to be sad. 

“That’s still my family,” she said. “All of Ukraine is my family.” 

 Tovkach said her cousin had talked to a relative in Ukraine who reported that Russian aircraft filled the sky. 

“It’s just been a lot of worry,” ​​ Tovkach said. “Just a lot of feeling helpless, but knowing that we still have power to organize in this way and collect donations — anything that we can do to spread awareness is just important.”

Tovkach’s family lives near Parma, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland with a large concentration of Ukrainian Americans. Unlike Ohio, Gainesville seemed to have very few Ukrainians in the area, she said. 

“This Ukrainian community was just kind of in the shadows,” she said. “I don’t think we [knew] how many of us were here until this moment. And so it’s kind of bittersweet.”

Others from Eastern European countries also spoke out about the impact of this war.

Karill Ukhanoe, 61, is a Gainesville resident and Russian native. He said he is strongly against the invasion of Ukraine.

“We support the small nations targeted by Russia,” he said. 

Karol Szczygielski, 20, is Polish and has family in Ukraine. He wants to garner as much support as he can for the country. 

“Polish people have a strong connection to Ukraine,” Szczygielski said. “We see them sort of as Slavic brothers. They are our brethren, and we need to support them as we would our own people.”

Salome Asatiani, 23, was 10 when Russian soldiers crossed the Georgia border and started bombing near her home. One outcome of the 2008 Russo-Georgian War was the loss of Georgian land and a worsened relationship between the two countries. 

“I am just amazed by the Ukrainian people’s bravery,” Asatiani said. “It’s literally just amazing how they stand together, soldiers and civilians, and they’re trying to defend their land. And I can simply say that as a Georgian, I’m proud of Ukrainians.”

Svitlana Parker speaks to peaceful demonstrators about the invasion of Ukraine and the impact it has had on her, her family and Ukrainians around the world. (Isabella Douglas/WUFT News)

Svitlana Parker, 22, said she never thought she would experience war during her lifetime.

She recently moved from Ukraine to Gainesville to be closer to her husband, but she never expected the terror she would experience while away. 

“This is my country,” she said. “We’ve been fighting so much to be free — to get the quality of life we have right now.”

Russian bombings destroyed the city next to where Parker’s mother lives. It cost Parker a very close friend.

“I want people to survive,” Parker said. “I want people that I know to survive. I want places that I know to be there, and I want to go home and visit my parents.”

She asks for a moment of silence for all the lives lost in the war.

“They are very strong, and everybody’s ready to defend their home because if Russians stop and go home, there will be no more war,” she said. “If Ukrainians stop, there will be no Ukraine.”

About Isabella Douglas

Isabella is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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