'Do the bombs sound louder?' Ukrainian students away from home in Poland ask about war

Those studying at universities in Poland question families back home about the effects of Russian invasion on their country

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Every morning since fleeing from Russia’s attack on their country, Ukrainian teenagers check the news to find out where missiles have landed and if their families are alive.

They ask fathers, grandparents and friends who stayed in cities surrounded by Russian troops if the bombs hit closer to home.

Thousands of students are studying in neighbouring Poland, where fees have been waived fees and scholarships offered to those who were forced to leave after the February 24 invasion.

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After February 24, my only wish is that I’m alive and that my parents and friends are alive
Tetiana Moroz, Ukrainian teenager

The National spoke to Ukrainian students at the University of Lodz, in the heart of Poland, one of several institutions to swiftly make room for the newcomers.

They have begun learning Polish with some taking up part-time jobs.

The students and their families said that while they are safe, their happiness is entwined with the fate of their loved ones across the border in Ukraine.

Are the bombs getting closer?

Anna Chornobublyk, a resident of Kharkhiv, in happier times in Ukraine. Photo: Anna Chornobublyk

An 18-year-old student calls her grandmother in Ukraine daily to make sure she is not in danger.

“I ask if she heard an explosion. Was it bigger than the previous night? Was it closer?” said Anna Chornobublyk, a resident of Kharkiv studying at the university.

“I also call my friends. My best friend’s father was in an area that was bombed. We were so worried for days because the bomb exploded near their house.”

Ms Chornobublyk planned to take a gap year after high school to pursue her passion for languages, compete in dancehall music contests and later study information technology.

Part of a Kharkiv team called the Mad Spirit Crew, she performed in dancehall competitions, a popular Jamaican music genre.

All plans changed when an explosion woke her at 4am and set off car alarms around her home on February 24.

Days later her family moved to safety in Zaporizhzhia city, Ukraine, and she then left for Poland with her mother and younger brother.

They continually worry about their stepfather, grandmother and friends in Ukraine.

“We tried to save our life by coming here, but I feel anger and sadness that this can happen in my Ukraine,” she said.

“When I first heard the explosions, I couldn’t believe that in the middle of Europe, in the 21st century, this can happen ― that someone can so easily invade the territory of an independent country.

“It’s important no one forgets because people are dying every day and that scares me.”

Will I speak to my father again?

Tetiana Moroz at Terebleche, on Ukraine’s western border with Romania, waiting in a queue of cars to get across. Photo: Tetiana Moroz

Tetiana Moroz deals with a recurring crippling anxiety of not knowing if she will be able to chat to her father again.

“It’s daily stress because when my father does not answer my calls, I think something bad has happened,” she said.

Her father, a builder, has enlisted in the war and while their city, Zaporizhzhia, is not under Russian control, the front line is now less than an hour’s drive away.

“Before the war, my father built houses. Now he works with others to save our region and not allow the Russians to enter,” she said.

“When we hear about bombings, I don’t know if I will be able to talk to my father again.

“When I get news that he is at home to rest, it is a great relief. When I hear his voice or read his message, ‘I’m okay’, these two words give me such happiness.”

A day before the war began, her focus was on completing a geography project.

“I was preparing a presentation for my class ― that was the only worry I had in my life,” said the teenager who studied international relations.

“I wanted to make my project successful, I dreamt of good marks. After February 24, my only wish is that I’m alive and that my parents and friends are alive.

“All my desires and dreams blew away. I have started to dream only about peace.”

Ms Moroz had applied for student projects overseas as part of Isic, a global non-profit organisation, and saved for travel in Europe.

Instead she used the money to reach Poland with her boyfriend and mother.

Ms Moroz turned 18 on March 1, the same day she set out on a 10-day journey, sleeping in the car without heating in minus 10°C as they queued for petrol to get them to the next city.

The war has split up her family.

She studies at the University of Lodz and works part-time in a McDonald’s restaurant.

Her mother, once a head teacher, has since moved to France to live with a friend.

“It’s been very hard for my mother to find work. She works in a supermarket in a job so different from her career, but she has to do it,” she said.

Ms Moroz never misses a day checking in on her father and grandmothers in Zaporizhzhia.

“People are suffering, it has only become worse,” she said.

“Before the war I was learning about cities in my region to know more about them. Now I know these cities only because of the bad news.”

Can you be happy if you leave to save your life?

Looking for food in Ukrainian supermarkets after the February 24 Russian invasion. Photo: Viktor Tereshchenko

Viktor Tereshchenko grapples with this question every day.

The 21-year-old has epilepsy and the condition rules him out from serving in Ukraine’s army.

Men between the ages of 18 and 60 are barred from leaving Ukraine, with exemptions for health conditions and for men supporting three or more children under the age of 18.

Mr Tereshchenko gets news from friends about food shortages in the occupied territories and learnt of a school friend and his girlfriend shot by Russian soldiers.

He stays in touch with his retired father, a factory work in his 60s, who lives in Zaporizhzhia.

“It’s up for debate whether you can be happy by leaving and saving your life,” said Mr Tereshchenko, who is Ms Moroz’s boyfriend, and aims to focus on his studies in Poland.

“Since the war, we can’t plan our life, plan our future,” he said.

“You can only try to live the best every day. If this is not possible some days, you must try to pretend like it is because you don’t know what will happen tomorrow.”

Counselling for students

The University of Lodz in central Poland opened a philology faculty to take in students from Ukraine after the Russian invasion in February. Photo: University of Lodz

The students are among thousands of Ukrainians who left after the war to study in Poland.

Some teenagers had physical reactions, such as trembling, triggered by their experiences.

The University of Lodz organised mental health counselling to help them.

“The hardest months were April and May as the war was expanding and most didn’t have contact with their families,” said Pawel Spiechowicz, a University of Lodz's spokesman.

“Some made contact with their family and were constantly shaking from fear about what was happening.

“We provided counselling with native Ukrainian speakers who were psychologists as some needed to speak in their own language to express their feelings.”

The university also opened a philology faculty to teach Polish with the English language to assimilate the new batch into the community and enable their search for employment.

Students can take up additional study courses after they learn Polish.

Ukrainian students are given the same bonuses as Polish students in terms of scholarships, paid practice, psychological and legal support.

“These are extraordinary circumstances and the new faculty was created in two months, which is fast by university standards,” Mr Spiechowicz said.

“It was launched for people who wanted to start studying and sought a safe place in Poland.

“We get enquiries every day. As one of the largest universities in Poland, we have the space and opportunity and try to help.”

Nearly 5,700 Ukrainian students applied to study in Polish universities a few months into the Russian invasion, according to government figures.

Ukrainians are the largest group of international students for some years, with about 38,400 studying in Poland in 2020-2021.

The University of Lodz had 700 Ukrainian students registered before the war with more than 30 students coming on board in recent months.

I want to go home

Margarita Nonka, a Ukrainian teacher, with her elder children and husband after a school prom in Kharkiv, Ukraine last year. Photo: Margarita Nonka

The refugees are linked by their urgent need to monitor information from their hometowns.

In the northern Polish port city of Gdansk, Margarita Nonka worries about her husband and eldest son in Ukraine.

She left Kharkiv with her daughter and younger son and plans to study in Poland.

The 44-year-old English language teacher can still hear the bombs around their Ukrainian home.

“We have everything we need here. Poland has given us a home, safety. They offer me to study the Polish language, but I want to go home.

“I know it is dangerous in Kharkiv because nobody knows where the bombs will fall.

“But to unite my family is my biggest wish on Earth. I hope it will happen some day.”

Updated: July 01, 2022, 6:00 PM
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