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Meet the new Ukrainian Student Society: President - Dmytro Kunchenko

My name is Dmytro, and I am the President of the Ukrainian Society at the University of Warwick. I am in the second year of my Philosophy, Politics and Economics degree. I am originally from Zaporizhzhia, an industrial city on the Dnipro River in the South of Ukraine, but I used to live in Stoianka, a village just outside of Kyiv, from when I started school until February 2022.

Through my childhood and teenage years, a lot has changed in Ukraine. Ten years ago, in the Winter of 2013-2014, my parents took me to Maidan Square in the centre of Kyiv, as the Revolution of Dignity was ongoing. It was as if a city, complete with barricade walls made of packed snow and ice, field kitchens and hospitals, existed within the Centre of Kyiv. And, of course, the frame of a Christmas tree, now covered with flags and banners. Something off the pages of “Les Misérables”. Having witnessed the strength of spirit - resilient against brutal violence - formed me as an individual.

Over the years, I developed somewhat of a knack for languages and learned English and German. Crimea had been under Russian occupation, the war in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions was ongoing. Many young people wanted to leave the country for better opportunities.

In October 2021, I chose PPE when applying to university. Studying in the UK has been a dream of mine, but one that was somewhat difficult to achieve financially. But there was something in the degree calling to me: an opportunity to talk about the great ideas and come closer to understanding the human condition. So, I focused on studying and preparing for my exams. In December, I got an offer from the University of Warwick; I was overjoyed. At the beginning of February 2022, I had my written exams. My parents and I went on a little holiday to celebrate this achievement: we bought outward tickets for the 15th of February 2022, and the return was due on the 24th, the day the war started.

We ended up stranded in Europe, thinking of where to go, and glued to the news feeds. I would not call our feelings at that moment "panic". We knew we were physically safe, but it was a dreadful sense of worry – our friends, relatives, my grandparents were still under shelling. Eventually, we went to Leipzig, Germany, where my cousin had moved for her husband’s work a couple of years prior. The street where my home stands in Stoianka marked the frontline for a few days. It was surreal to see the road you took to school for 11 years become the backstage for international war reporting. A Russian MLRS rocket booster fell near our fence, an unexploded mortar shell got stuck in the roof of our shed. Russian forces soon retreated, letting my grandmother evacuate and rejoin us at the Polish border.

Germany welcomed us warmly. There was an atmosphere of solidarity floating in the air. From train stations to administrative buildings, from churches to cafes, the locals seemed willing to help the arriving refugees. The German government and the EU were finalising the provisions for temporary protection. I spent some time collecting humanitarian aid along with locals, members of the existing diaspora, and other newly arrived refugees. From then on, I helped my family and other refugees by filling out countless forms, finding housing, learning German, and talking with healthcare workers. My family are still in Leipzig to this day, I try to visit them for Christmas and on summer holidays.

The UK, like Germany, was incredibly welcoming to me. It is not just the flags on the streets of London and Coventry, it is the empathetic people from all walks of life that made me feel that way. I genuinely believe there is an overarching sense of solidarity with Ukraine and Ukrainians on all levels, from the individual to the government.

I am incredibly privileged to have been offered a scholarship at Warwick. Being a student here is an incredible experience. I study PPE, and – as I tell people asking me: “How’s university going?” – I have no regrets about my degree choice. It’s a degree that allows me to gain a holistic worldview while at the same time studying specialised topics that interest me. This year, for example, I am taking International Security and Industrial Economics. The academic community, students, and staff are amazing here. I’ve met many passionate people from such a wide range of backgrounds. There is always someone willing to engage in productive debate, joke, have fun or, if needed, lend an ear.

Warwick also engages to help Ukraine, as well as Ukrainian students and academics. I am proud that my university enters strategic partnerships and organises exchanges with Ukrainian universities from Lviv to Kharkiv and is home to many Ukrainian academics. I highlight the engagement of the university administrators, who have shown their solidarity with Ukraine from day one. The dedicated Ukraine Working Group of the university tirelessly works on keeping up the solidarity two years on.

Overall, I regard the university as an incredibly positive experience. However, it is sometimes stressful to be a student. This stress is amplified if you are a refugee. In summer term 2023, for example, the general exam stress was exacerbated by Russia’s terrorist destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam. You must check in with friends and family from back home, some of whom are scattered across the world while others are still in direct danger from the war. A further complication here is that I am only legally allowed a limited time in Germany to visit, at this point, almost anyone from my immediate family. With the war having such a range of global impacts, it gets mentioned in lectures and seminars. It is sobering to me: it makes you remember that behind every news story, statistic and outcome are real human lives.

Yet, I remain an optimist. I was inspired last year by the sort of communities the societies here at Warwick create. The Ukrainian society was in its first year when I came to Warwick, I felt it was something I wanted to be a part of. It is simultaneously an opportunity for Ukrainians to reconnect and a brilliant platform to represent ourselves, our home country, and its culture with dignity to a UK audience. We are also part Ukrainian Student’s Union, a network connecting Ukrainian societies at Universities across the UK. Via the USU, students get access to incredible academic and professional opportunities and meaningful representation on a national scale.

In the Autumn of this year, I got elected president of the society. I am still new to this role, but I am learning as I work and have an incredible team that supports me. I believe that with each passing year, more and more Ukrainian students will enrol in UK universities and Warwick specifically, which is why it is so critical to have a safe space that would allow them to connect, express themselves and get support from peers if they need it. This is why we are organising both thought-provoking academic discussions, like the one on Wednesday the 21st of February, and cosy social events that bring a little bit of Ukraine to the university.

For the short term, I plan to study (I know, shocking) and engage in developing the Ukrainian Society further. Like many other students here, I am starting to look for a master’s programme and thinking of starting a career. I hope that the friends I made here will be with me for life and that we will be there for each other no matter what. But my biggest hope and dream is to return home to a peaceful, independent, victorious Ukraine.

Best wishes, and Слава Україні – Dmytro Kunchenko

Fri 16 Feb 2024, 15:55 | Tags: Ukraine