The full-scale invasion of Ukraine began on Thursday, February 24, and in the month since then, St. Andrew’s senior and Kyiv resident Zhenia Khalabadzhakh ’22 has been working both on campus and off to fight for her country.
Unable to go home for Spring Break, Zhenia spent the recess at the home of her advisor, Senior Associate Director of Admission Kristin Honsel P’24. She kept busy by speaking with middle school students at local schools—MOT Charter and St. Anne’s Episcopal School—where she shared Ukrainian history and her perspective on the war as a Ukrainian citizen. She has also organized, with the help of her classmate April Seo ’22, a t-shirt fundraiser for Nova Ukraine, an organization that provides humanitarian aid to Ukrainians. They’ve raised more than $1,500 for Nova Ukraine and the fundraiser is still going; you can purchase a t-shirt or sweatshirt here.
“I think the main problem for Ukrainians [living] internationally is this feeling of survivor guilt that we have,” Zhenia said. “It’s the idea of: ‘I'm not there, hence, I'm not helping.’ You feel bad for feeling safe. That’s the hard part of it, and that’s why a lot of Ukrainians abroad are so proactive—that’s a way for us to help Ukraine, but also it’s a way for us to sort of escape that feeling of guilt and feel like we’re making change, even if it’s on a very small scale. It’s just important for us as individuals, and it’s important for us as a nation, to be united and do whatever we can.”
She reflected on her feelings immediately following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: “I think the first couple of days everyone was in shock. And then it kind of ‘clicked’ and you realize, ‘Okay, me crying here [in the United States] is not really helpful, so I should do something. Anything.”
With her classmates back on campus following the Spring Recess, Zhenia then set about organizing campus vigil for Ukraine. First, she worked with SAGE Dining Services to organize a Wednesday lunch of traditional Ukrainian dishes using recipes from her family, including borshch (a beet soup); varenyky (a type of pierogi that her family makes together by hand); and yabluchnyk (Ukrainian apple cake). Then, for that evening’s chapel service, the school community dressed in yellow and blue, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, and gathered in the chapel to sing Ukrainian hymns and folksongs, and Zhenia shared a moving talk on the unity and bravery of Ukranians not just in this moment, but throughout the history of her country. Although offerings are not typically collected at Wednesday night chapel, baskets were passed during the vigil with all proceeds going to Razom, a Ukrainian NGO that is providing relief inside the country; the school community raised more than $1,000 for Razom through the offering.
“The Ukrainian coat of arms has a word encrypted in it,” Zhenia said in her chapel talk. “The word is volia. Interestingly, it can be translated in two ways: ‘freedom’ and ‘will.’ Ukrainians as a nation know that there is no freedom without the will and no will without freedom. We know that we need to fight for our freedom. And if history wants us to show how brave and united we are once again, we will do it.”
You can listen to Zhenia’s chapel talk in full here.
Zhenia came to St. Andrew’s through the Ukraine Global Scholars program, an almost entirely volunteer-run organization that connects Ukrainian students “of modest means” with scholarship opportunities at top colleges and high schools around the world. In turn, UGS students commit to returning to Ukraine after the completion of their education abroad to help lead—and now, rebuild—the country.
“In light of everything that’s going on, we understand more than ever that the kids who are 15 in Ukraine right now are the people who are going to be rebuilding Ukraine once the war is over,” Zhenia says. “That’s the long-term vision of UGS, and that’s how I see myself. Someone will need to do that, and the UGS kids are exactly the people who will be qualified to do that.” Like all UGS students and alumni, Zhenia volunteers for the organization and mentors upcoming students who are currently in the scholarship application pipeline.
Zhenia is the second UGS student to attend St. Andrew’s; preceding her was Robert Shyroian ’21, who currently attends the Illinois Institute of Technology. You can support families of UGS students who have been displaced by the war via this UGS fundraiser.
Even before the invasion, Zhenia was working to share the story of her country with the St. Andrew’s community. At a School Meeting in early February, she read an excerpt of the English translation of “Europe was silent”, a poem written by Oleksandr Oles in 1931, just before the Holodomor, an artificial famine and genocide of the Ukrainian nation designed to suppress Ukrainian resistance to Soviet collectivization.
“What I personally love about this poem is that it reminds me how much responsibility there is, not only in the person who is committing the crime, but in the person who fails to speak up,” she explained on the Engelhard stage. “Russian aggression uses a lot of information and misinformation, and information is a weapon in the 21st century. By educating yourself, you support me, and you support my country.” The following weekend, she organized a Friday night viewing and discussion of the 2014 film “The Guide,” set in 1930s Soviet Ukraine, and collaborated with school librarians to put up a display of books on Ukrainian history and culture. She has been working in the library throughout the school year to refresh the school’s collection of Ukrainian and Eastern European history texts. “There was a ton about Russian history [in the library collection], but not enough about the history of smaller countries that were formed after the dissolution of the Soviet Union,” she says. “But they all have history before that—Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, Estonia, all of these Baltic and Eastern European countries have a longer history than Russia wants us to have. Most people think that Ukraine was formed 30 years ago! I really hope there will be Ukrainian students after me [at St. Andrew’s] who can come to the library and say, “Oh my God, this is such a great collection about Ukrainian history.”
Zhenia recommends https://www.standwithukraine.how/ as an excellent resource for ways to help and support Ukraine and its citizens—organizations that need donations, letter-writing templates, information on rallies and marches, and so forth. “When you want to donate somewhere, it’s very important to seek out what Ukrainians might want you to donate to, rather than just donating somewhere and feeling good about yourself,” Zhenia notes. “We are asking you to donate to Ukraine, and to the army, not because we want to go and conquer Moscow, but because we want our land back. If Russia stops fighting, there will be peace. But if Ukraine stops fighting—there will be no Ukraine.”