When she heard the news, Mayya Petrenko-Abdullayeva (23PH) could not breathe. On Feb. 24, Russia invaded Ukraine and headed towards Kyiv, where her siblings, friends and former colleagues live. Her mother and father live 30 minutes north of the capital, and they now hear Russian airstrikes and gunfire every day from their basement shelter.
“I called my mom and asked her ‘what [should we] do?’” Petrenko-Abdullayeva said. “I started crying, and she [was] crying. She told me, ‘If you [are going to] cry, then you better come home.’”
Petrenko-Abdullayeva is one of several current and former Ukrainian students at Emory with family and friends still living through the war in Ukraine.
Her mother works as a nurse in a hospital close to the fighting, treating injured soldiers daily. Petrenko-Abdullayeva supports her siblings and their families as they survive the bombings, but they fear fleeing on the main roads to Poland, and other European countries are blocked off by Russian soldiers. Petrenko-Abdullayeva calls each person in her immediate family twice a day to make sure everyone is safe.
“I’m not there, but my heart is there,” Petrenko-Abdullayeva said.
Taking a stand
At the onset of the war in Ukraine, current and former Ukrainian students at Emory were unsure of how to fight from their location.
Tetiana Lendiel (16L) cannot sleep until the bombings stop. From Atlanta, she calls her relatives in her village Myla, which is east of Kyiv, and her family friends in Kyiv.
“Their morning starts with checking everyone is okay,” Lendiel said. “‘How are you? Are you okay? Is your building there? Are your loved ones still there?’”
When she knows everyone is safe, Lendiel can rest.
Born in Myla, Lendiel attended boarding school in Kyiv and lived in the city for 25 years before coming to Atlanta in 2015 to attend Emory’s law school. After graduating in 2016 and passing her bar exam, she started work at a local law firm.
When the war started in Ukraine, Lendiel’s mother was visiting her in Atlanta. Together, they helped their family find the resources they needed to survive in Ukraine, such as electricity and gas.
As Russian forces surged towards Kyiv, Lendiel’s relatives were forced to flee Myla before Ukraine liberated the village on April 2.
“Ukrainian people are very hard working people,” Lendiel said. “Most of them have had very difficult lives in the past.”
This is not the first time Lendiel’s family or any Ukrainian has experienced Russian violence and suppression. The Soviet Union took control of Ukraine in 1919, and in the 1930s, they enacted Russification, or the forced cultural assimilation of others to give up their own culture and language in favor of Russian culture and language.
For several decades following, Russia used violence to suppress the Ukrainian culture, language and people. From 1932 to 1933, millions of Ukrainians starved to death in a famine known as Holodomor, or ‘to kill by starvation’ in Ukrainian. Throughout the 20th century, the Soviet Union banned Ukrainian schools and language to suppress their culture and expression.
“People didn’t talk about [the Great Famine] until 1994,” Lendiel said. “They couldn’t even say a word about it because they were so afraid that it could get out to the wrong ears. You don’t know what may happen to your family, so in our family, [Russian oppression] was never discussed.”
The effects of Russification and the erasure of Ukrainian culture persist today. According to the 2001 census, nearly 30% of Ukrainians listed Russian as their native language. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and imposed similar efforts to assimilate eastern Ukrainians to Russian culture.
Ukrainians pushed back against Putin’s annexation of Crimea and his puppet-like control over their government. The Maidan protests, or ‘Revolution of Dignity,’ followed in 2014 with pro-democracy protestors successfully overthrowing the government in Kyiv to reestablish democracy.
In 2022, the war for Ukraine and its culture continues.
“The movement to liberate Ukraine has never stopped, even within the [Soviet Union],” Lendiel said. “There have been many attempts to diminish our language, to diminish our culture. But, nations do not disappear, right? They are either free or they’re enslaved. This time around, I think Ukrainians realize this is now or never, and we’re not going back.”
When the war started, Lendiel, a native Russian speaker, started to exclusively speak Ukrainian with her family and friends.
Lendiel is an active member of the Georgia branch of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America that joins together in Atlanta for protests against the war and fundraising to help Ukrainian civilians. The group recently funded a purchase of 150 first aid kits that were distributed by volunteers to Chernihiv and Kyiv.
“Ukrainian people have made their choice [for democracy], and they’re willing to die for it, and they’re willing to stand for it. And that’s why I think we will prevail.”
Sam Shafiro (25C) wraps the yellow and blue scarf his mom knit him over spring break around his neck. He wears the color of the Ukrainian flag in his classes and as he walks through campus.
Shafiro is a first-generation Ukrainian college student, whose family lived much of their lives in Odessa, a port city on the Black Sea in Western Ukraine. Throughout his life, his family has constantly been in contact with their relatives in Odessa.
When Shafiro heard the news of the war in Ukraine, he felt disillusioned.
“The news is just tantalizing enough to make us feel that reading something is enough,” Shafiro said. “And, in the end, we feel powerless, we feel like we can’t really do anything, that these things will continue to happen.”
When he returned home from spring break, his parents shared a similar feeling. As they scrolled the news from Ukraine every morning, his parents forgot to get ready for the day or leave for work.
Instead, they decided to put their time and energy toward an aid project that provides medical supplies for those in Odessa.
Through their extended family in Berlin, Germany, the family buys medical supplies to be transported to Krakow, Poland, where they are loaded into donated vans. The vans then drive to Odessa to drop off the supplies, and when they return, the vans transport dozens of refugees to Poland.
“When I came back for break and was exposed to my family, I strongly, on an emotional and visceral level, resonated with this idea of support,” Shafiro said.
Shafiro started to raise money for his parents’ project through his social media and by sharing the mission with classmates at Emory. He donned his Ukrainian scarf when he spoke to each one of his classes about his family’s project.
The project has raised $17,186, as of April 12, with all of the money going toward medical supplies and equipment for a donated ambulance to be used in Odessa.
“[Democracy] is part of what created the pushback and ability to create a unified Ukrainian identity in the opposition to Russia,” Shafiro said. “To prevent Russia’s theory of the invasion being welcomed with open arms.”
Everything she can
In between lectures, Petrenko-Abdullayeva reflected on her path to the University, as well as the stress of being separated from her home country under attack.
After a life as a successful virologist in Ukraine, she moved to the U.S. with her husband, an American scientist, in 2008. With her Emory degree, she hopes to build up her career again.
“I’m in this program to get back to doing what I have to do,” Petrenko-Abdullayeva said. “[Emory] lets me get the kind of opportunity and skills to do something more in this country.”
As the war continues to threaten her family’s safety, Petrenko-Abdullayeva does everything she can from Atlanta.
Petrenko-Abdullayeva financially supports her family in Kyiv, and she also works to start a fundraiser for her close friend who works at a Ukrainian hospital for wounded soldiers. She also has attended rallies outside the CNN building with the Ukrainian Community of Atlanta.
At Emory itself, Abudellayeva, with the help of faculty and her peers, has encouraged the Rollins administration to show a documentary about the history of Ukrainian independence and Russian oppression in Ukraine.
“I just want people to see the nation of Ukraine, the people who are fighting to death, what freedom is about, and this humanitarian catastrophe,” Abudellayeva said. “The Ukrainian nation exists. We are an independent and free nation, and we don’t let anybody take our freedom. Freedom is not free, and we have to fight for it.”