My grandparents were refuseniks, meaning they were not allowed to leave the Soviet Union and were stuck behind the Iron Curtain for more than 10 years without basic human rights or jobs. They faced antisemitism and persecution, but eventually, in 1989, my mama and her parents were able to come to the United States as political refugees, and they started rebuilding their lives in the free world. My papa came several years later on a green card in search of job opportunities. Despite both being from the same hometown of Kyiv, my parents actually met in San Francisco, where I was later born.
Growing up with immigrant parents is an experience of its own. Learning to understand and value cultural differences, hearing comments about my parents’ accents and feeling somewhat excluded from American traditions put me — a first-generation American — at the crossroads of two separate worlds. Being raised by my parents and grandparents who grew up under the Soviet regime was even more odd; it was as if they saw things through a different lens than those who had grown up in America.
My grandparents saved everything. I was even taught to pick up screws and bolts as I walked along the sidewalk “in case they might come in handy later,” as if we couldn’t just run to The Home Depot and buy some. I later learned that in the Soviet Union, you often couldn’t purchase the things you needed. My parents recalled that they would often arrive at the store to purchase groceries, and the shelves would be empty. They tell stories of joining lines on the street for things they did not even need, knowing one of their friends or family members might. Since then, the Soviet Union has collapsed, and Ukraine has gained its long-sought-after independence.
I was often reminded of how lucky I was to grow up in a city such as San Francisco — a vibrant place where anyone could be whatever they dreamed of. Simply by living and being born there, I was surrounded by opportunities. I felt grateful for my loving, warm and welcoming Ukrainian home, where my mama and I baked syrniki (Ukrainian cheese pancakes) and my father wore a vyshyvanka (Ukrainian embroidered shirt). However, I struggled to explain to those around me that, despite speaking fluent Russian, I was actually Ukrainian. I was often told that “Russians and Ukrainians were the same,” and for a while, I actually believed it.
In the past few days, I have found immense clarity. Ukrainians love freedom and democracy and have been fighting for it for years. Ukraine has genuine political competition, freedom of the press and continual efforts to make progress in fighting corruption. In the past few days, Ukraine has also taught the rest of the world what it means to love freedom, what it means to be brave in the face of danger and what it means to be a hero.
Ukrainians have made it clear that they will not give up their land or their freedom. Hundreds of thousands of people have joined the Ukrainian armed forces. Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy has refused offers to evacuate and continues to defend his country alongside his people. The 13 Ukrainian soilders who were stationed at Snake Island were told to surrender by a Russian warship, and in response, they reportedly said: “Russian warship, go f— yourself.”
We have also seen immense support from people around the world. In the past couple of days, there have been protests in Berkeley, San Francisco, New York, Paris and London. Even in Moscow, some Russian citizens have expressed their disapproval of the current war on Ukraine.
But Ukraine still needs help.
The morning of Feb. 24, 2022, has gone down in history as the date of the largest armed invasion on the European continent in the 21st century. Ukrainian civilians woke up to intense shelling and missile attacks from the Russian troops stationed along the borders of Russia, Belarus and the occupied territories of Moldova and Ukraine itself. Current data from the United Nations estimates 752 civilian casualties as of March 2.
As I write this article and exercise my freedom of speech in a democratic country, Ukrainians are risking their lives for such rights.
The academic community holds an unprecedented amount of political and social influence. Students, faculty and staff from the world’s leading higher institutions should use the platform bestowed upon them to take a definitive stance today. The inaction of universities and their continued cooperation with the aggressor states legitimize the power of such regimes and their actions. A clear statement condemning Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified attack on Ukraine is an important signal of support for Ukraine and Ukrainian students. UC Berkeley has not yet released such a statement specifically condemning actions from the Russian government. Our campus and other universities must show their support for victims of this unprovoked war, which is unleashing a humanitarian crisis.
We also need the world to impose greater sanctions on Russia. Each and every one of you can boycott Russian products or companies that continue to support Russia. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, must also protect Ukrainian airspace to help Ukraine defend itself against Putin’s attacks.
Today, I have never been more proud to say that I am Ukrainian, wear my vyshyvanka and declare, “Slava Ukraini” (“Glory to Ukraine”).