When a Haverford College student from Moscow took a class on “transitional justice” and learned about war tribunals and genocide, she said she didn’t imagine that she would one day be watching her own country carrying out such crimes.
“I never really thought that I would find myself to be on the side of the perpetrators of genocide,” the 22-year-old comparative literature major said, her voice filled with emotion.
Sitting next to her at the table in the college library one night last week was Oleh Shostak, 21, a Haverford sophomore who is from Ukraine.
“I don’t think you are on the side of perpetrators,” Shostak said. “You come from that side, but by taking a stand, you are not there.”
And that’s how it’s been at the 1,435-student, selective liberal arts college on the Main Line, the small group of Ukrainian and Russian students supporting each other and uniting against a war ravaging one of their countries and dividing the other. They have been volunteering and raising money to support Ukrainians back home and lobbying their college to bring more Ukrainian students to the school, teach more about the country, its language and politics, and take a strong stand against the war.
They also have formed a group with their counterparts at Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr Colleges. And Shostak and the Russian student, who asked not to be named because Russians may face persecution by their government for speaking out, recently addressed a Haverford class, “The Politics of Violence,” where they were able to share what they were feeling and what their families were experiencing.
“Ever since the war started I feel like we’ve been doing a lot for our country, or to put it a different way, all we can,” said Shostak, who has been working with an organization to raise money and purchase medical equipment for soldiers.
And they’ve done it while enduring their own deep hardship, knowing that their loved ones thousands of miles away are in danger.
Around the region, colleges with Ukrainian and Russian international students — there are less than 7,000 nationwide — are striving to provide support and holding marches in solidarity. In 2020-21, 1,739 students from Ukraine and 4,805 from Russia were studying at U.S. colleges, according to the Institute on International Education.
At Neumann University in Aston, student and faculty volunteers prepared and sent more than 15,000 meals to Ukrainian refugees in Poland, said spokesperson Steve Bell. Neumann’s Sisters of St. Francis also are covering expenses of a Ukrainian student who could no longer pay his tuition because his family had to abandon their jobs and leave the country, Bell said.
Haverford, for its part, has been reaching out to the students — it enrolls two from Ukraine and four from Russia — offering financial, academic, and personal support.
“Immediately my office started looking into individual financial aid situations for students,” said John McKnight, dean of the college.
Haverford also at the request of students is making arrangements for summer housing and allowing students the option of pass/fail grades to ease pressures, he said.
“Haverford has done this for generations for students, and thankfully, it hasn’t been around war as often as it has been around family and personal tragedy,” said Wendy Raymond, Haverford president. “Haverford has responded by saying, ‘We got you.’ ”
Iryna Khovryak, 22, a senior computer science major from Lviv, a city in western Ukraine not far from the Polish border, said every member of her extended family has lost their jobs.
“All of their savings that they were able to pull out, that’s what they are using now,” said Khovryak, who was last home for winter break, before the war started.
Her mother, who had worked for banks for more than 20 years, fled the country with Khovryak’s younger brother. Her father is volunteering for the army, and one of her grandmothers, who used to teach at the kindergarten, now periodically volunteers there, where the bomb shelter for the community also is located.
“She’s been opening it up every time the air strike alarms are going off, getting the kids over there,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking because they don’t understand.”
But she said compared to many other places, her city is fortunate, though 30 rockets recently were launched at a small town where extended family lives.
“Nowhere is safe anymore,” she said.
She said she is already on a full financial aid package but Haverford has stepped in to help out with other bills. She’s also been working as many hours as she can, she said.
Shostak’s mother, who lives in Kropyvnytskyi, a city in central Ukraine, is suffering from metastatic cancer and had been traveling to Kharkiv, a city in northern Ukraine, for treatments in a clinical trial.
“But because of the war, large parts of the city were destroyed,” he said, “and the clinical trials are not happening any more.”
His mother a few days ago contacted Pfizer, which shipped her thousands of dollars worth of the medicine, but the package was lost, he said.
“How does this whole thing affect us as students? This is how,” said Shostak, a double major in computer science and neuroscience. “I am not going to classes. I’m trying to contact them in the Ukraine and figure out where the package went. That’s my No. 1 priority, not learning about Aristotle in my philosophy class.”
Both his father and brother are volunteering for the army, he said, as are many of his friends who had been enrolled in military colleges. He’s felt guilty.
“I can fight and I’m not there. I’m thousands of miles away raising money,” he said, “but help comes in different ways. I do believe what I’m doing here is right and important.”
He is encouraging as many as he can to take a stand, which is why he and other students wrote a letter to Haverford, as well as Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr, asking among other things for the schools to put out a strong statement in support of Ukraine.
“It’s not just about Ukraine’s sovereignty or protection of the borders or that Putin is a stupid moron. It’s about protecting the peace, democracy, and intrinsic values that the whole world is built on,” he said.
Raymond, Haverford’s president, issued a statement, albeit later than students had wanted, condemning the war and supporting not only Ukrainians, but also Russians who are supporting Ukrainians. And after students returned from spring break, about 100 students and staff gathered on the college green for quiet reflection in the school’s Quaker tradition, with words from those who chose to share.
The student from Moscow emphasized that what she is going through pales in comparison to that of her Ukrainian friends. Born six months before Russia’s Vladimir Putin came into power, she said she has found it difficult to communicate with family and loved ones in Russia because she supports sanctions against the country and condemns the government.
Most people she knows feel the way she does, she said, but are afraid to speak up. Her father has been unemployed for several years and her mother is on a pension, she said. She also has an older sibling with multiple disabilities, she said.
She has been at Haverford for nearly four years, also minoring in political science, and for the last couple has volunteered for a nonprofit that provides legal aid to antiwar protesters and people who are oppressed in Russia. With the start of the war, she felt it was even more important to take a stand, she said.
“I think that it’s my duty as a Russian to participate, to be present with my Ukrainian friends,” she said. “As Russians, we will be taking collective responsibility for what is happening, and I will be someone who together with other Russians will be responsible for what happens after the war, for reconciliation and creating a place where something like that will not happen again.”