“I Was Told that It Had Been Suicide”: Freshmen on Their Decision to Stay in Ukraine

Because of the war, dozens of thousands of university entrants left Ukraine. Bird in Flight asked those who could have left but didn't — why they stayed.

During the war, European universities simplified the admission procedure for Ukrainians. As a result, about 60 thousand school graduates left Ukraine last year. However, among the young people able to go abroad, there were those who decided to stay in Ukraine despite the war. Bird in Flight asked them why they made such a choice and whether they regretted their decision.

Emilia, 18

Kyiv National University, Faculty of Psychology

— My boyfriend is the main reason for me staying in Ukraine. We’ve been together for 2 years. He is my peer, so he can’t leave abroad.

When the war started, my mother, father, two sisters and I left for the Netherlands – my father is a foreigner, so we had a place to live. On our way, we drove my boyfriend to the west of Ukraine.

I was thinking of trying to enter a university in the Netherlands. But the country seemed pale and gray to me, the language was incomprehensible, and the people were strange.

My mother has a Soviet mindset. She believes that higher education is the most important thing in life. And I don’t live for education. You can take some courses and find a great job. I am sure that university is not the main thing. She and I argued a lot about it. I felt like a child being dragged by my parents to the doctor. I told my mother about my emotional state and that I didn’t like being abroad. In the end, she understood me.

On returning to Ukraine, I felt at home. I was enjoying everything: familiar streets, street signs, ads in native language. Everything here is native and very homely. Now I live in Kyiv, and my mother lives in the Netherlands. From time to time, she comes to Ukraine and still panics about air alarms and blackouts.

Sometimes it is very difficult emotionally, but I hold on because I have to think about my daily routine: what to eat, what to do when the electricity is cut off.

If my boyfriend and I break up or if he is drafted, I will go to the Netherlands and be a support for my family.

Artem, 18

Kyiv National University of Construction and Architecture

— I intended going to Poland to enroll in the preparatory courses, and then going to the Kraków Polytechnic. But in the summer, my grandfather died, so I am the only man left in the family. I could not leave my mother and grandmother alone, so I stayed.

My family supported my decision – although, had I left, they would have reacted the same. But my friend said that staying in Ukraine is suicide. However, everything is fine so far.

A friend said that staying in Ukraine is suicide. However, everything is fine so far.

I do not regret staying in Ukraine. I study at a top university, enjoy an active student life, and participate in the work of the student council.

I dream of having “Wikipedia” mention me. I still want to build many buildings and at least one church. But I am not ready for conscription — my physical condition does not allow it. I plan to join the military training department and, should the need be, become a reserve officer. The travel ban for students did not upset me. I believe that by the time I graduate, the war will have already been over.

Olena, 18

Kyiv National University

— Over the past three years, I have started to communicate less. While during the pandemic I was able to go out, in the first months of the war I did not go outside at all. Then my friends went separate ways: some to the west of Ukraine, some abroad. But I have already adapted and do not feel a lack of communication. In the evenings, I watch movies or series.

A few years ago, I wanted to study abroad, but the war changed everything, and I decided to stay at home. I was even offered to go to school in England, but I also declined the invitation. Here I have a feeling of home, people I know, but abroad everything is foreign. Also, I still don’t know what I want to do, so I can’t plan my life. What has to happen for me to leave? For example, the occupation of the Kyiv region by the russians.

Here I have a feeling of home, people I know, but abroad everything is foreign.

My parents supported my decision to stay. At the beginning of the war, they asked me if I wanted to study in Europe. I rejected the idea, and we never returned to this conversation again.

Sofia, 18

Kyiv National University

— When the war started, my parents’ acquaintances invited me to the US, my English tutor invited me to Poland, there was also an option to go to Germany. I started packing my suitcase and realized that I didn’t want to go anywhere. So we stayed.

I didn’t have a prom, but I wasn’t upset. If you want to celebrate your youth, you will find an opportunity for it.

I thought about studying abroad in the summer, when the National multi-subject test (NMT) was introduced in Ukraine. The idea of NMT is righteous, but mathematics was included in it and coefficients were to be given instead of points. I was ready for the External Independent Evaluation (ZNO), but not for the new system. Besides, I lost a month of training because of the war. I decided this way: if I do not get into a Ukrainian university, I will go study abroad – to Poland, Great Britain or Canada. But I made it here and stayed at home. Now I am a student of the best university in the country – KNU.

I want to develop the brand of Ukraine, because our country deserves recognition. When I gain experience, I want to take a cool position or open my own business. It will be difficult to get a job in a country where there is a war, but there will be companies that need specialists like me.

Afina, 17

The Prydniprovska State Academy of Civil Engineering and Architecture

— My parents believe that our generation lost the best years of their lives because of quarantine and war. I don’t think so, but when I listen to them, I start to believe it. Although my friends and I live normally: we meet for coffee, we go to parties.

Before the war, I did not consider studying abroad, although there were such opportunities. Then I felt so much stress that I couldn’t think about anything. When the war started, many of my friends left the country. I slept in the basement for several months so as not to wake up from the sounds of explosions. Mom and I could leave, but we didn’t want to leave dad alone.

I slept in the basement for several months so as not to wake up from the sounds of explosions. Mom and I could leave, but we didn’t want to leave dad alone.

I do not regret that I stayed in Ukraine. My loved ones are here, and I am at peace here. The friends who left are living through the war harder than I am. Moreover, it would be difficult for me to be alone abroad. Sometimes I need someone to tell me that everything will be okay.

Dasha, 18

Odesа Polytechnic National University

— I had several options to take up — the universities in Ukraine as well as abroad. I liked Poland. There are progressive open people and beautiful architecture there. I planned to enter the university in Rzeszów – the first semester there is free for Ukrainians. But I got scared. There I would have to be responsible for myself, and at home I can partially rely on my parents. In addition, I learned from the video on immigrants that life abroad is not a fairy tale. They will never accept you there. So I decided to stay at home.

I’m a little sad that I didn’t have a prom — an important set of memories. But I don’t dwell on it. There are many holidays ahead, where I will get strong impressions.

I study at the Faculty of Biomedical Engineering. In the future, I want to work within this field. Prosthetics is an important matter.

Sofia, 17

Dnipro University of Technology

— I went to Poland with my mother and brother on the fourth month of the war. I didn’t communicate with anyone there – I didn’t have the strength. It was difficult for me psychologically because of an internal conflict: how can I go to the cinema or to a disco while our soldiers are fighting?

There are many good things in Poland: there are no homeless animals, very nice people. I could have stayed there, but my heart told me to go back. First, my dad was in Ukraine. Secondly, I like the country. Mom used to say: “You will study here in Poland, then we will buy you a car, like you wanted it.” But I insisted on going back. We had a big fight. She gave up.

Dad supported my decision, and grandma said I would regret coming back. It was unpleasant to hear that from her.

We drove home through Kremenchuk. That day, the Russians bombed the shopping centre. We were next to him. I heard explosions and thought I was going to die. I couldn’t fall asleep alone for a long time due to fear – I was afraid that our house would also be blasted. The first night in Ukraine was quite scary after the news. Mom asked: maybe it’s better to go back? We stayed and didn’t talk about it any more.

You can say that because of the quarantine and the war, I lost my youth. But on the other hand, the first one taught me to value people, the second one made me grow up.

Due to the quarantine and the war, I lost my youth. But on the other hand, the first one taught me to value people, the second one made me grow up.

Maksym, 18

Kharkiv School of Architecture

— For me, the war became a trigger for personal changes. Before that, I was choosing a career for a long time, and then I realized that architecture is the one. I now have goals, which I am approaching, and motivation to study.

In the eighth grade, I thought I would go study in Poland. It was an abstract goal, but I liked it. Then I considered Britain and Austria. The latter was said to be a very cool place to live. I realized later that not everything is so great in those countries. In addition, I realized that, while studying abroad, I will fall out of the Ukrainian context, and I may lose contact with the loved ones. Parents said: “Go study wherever you want. As long as you will learn and you like it.” And I decided to stay in Ukraine.

The Kharkiv School of Architecture is now located in Lviv, so I am also here.

I hope that in spring there will be a turning point in the war in our favour and that I will not be drafted by then, because I will not be of any help at the front. I will work in Ukraine, in one of the bureaus, later – all over the world.

I hope I will not be drafted by then, because I will not be of any help at the front.

Nastya, 18

Odesa State Academy of Construction and Architecture

— I am from Bakhmut. When the war started, I was at home. I called my boyfriend and said: “Wake up, there is a war in the country. Come to me. We will live together.” Not on our own, of course, but with my parents – they didn’t mind, because they know that for me a boyfriend is a family member.

We left Bakhmut at the end of March, my parents followed us a month later. My mother put pressure on me, saying: “Enter a European university, gain a foothold there.” I answered: “I’m fine here too.”

I had a place to go. A friend lives in Germany, her uncle has a business, that is, finding a job wouldn’t be an issue. But my boyfriend can’t leave, and it’s not fair for me to leave him alone.

A year ago, I signed up for preparatory courses at the Odessa Academy. Then I applied there. My father was indifferent, and my mother was not happy about my moving to Odessa: Mykolaiv and Transnistria are pretty nearby.

At first, I stayed because of my boyfriend. Then, when I started communicating with friends who returned to Ukraine, I realized that I had done the right thing. Their experience of being abroad was not as “fairy” as I had imagined. There are no 24-hour shops, Nova Poshta, or Diia. Bureaucracy is crazy. There is a language barrier.

I still don’t know where I will work when I graduate. But I know that the first thing I will do is rebuild my house in Bakhmut.

Viktoria, 17
Lviv National University

— I am twice an IDP. Born and lived in Luhansk; eight years ago, when the war started, I moved to Severodonetsk, and last year – to Lviv, which has already become my home. My stepfather, mother and brother are now in Kropyvnytskyi.

When the coronavirus epidemic began, I experienced panic attacks for the first time in my life. A lot of things pressured me then: conflicts at school, fear of getting sick. I started working with a psychologist, and it helped – the attacks decreased.

I am an excellent student. Therefore, it is not surprising that on the night when the war began, I was preparing for the test. We left for Dnipro, then for Kropyvnytskyi.

The war was difficult for me. I was meant to get the gold medal – it was very important for me. With the start of hostilities, studying ended. A projectile hit our school, the teachers moved, there is no water and electricity. Complete chaos. I tried to prepare for external independent examinations, read a history textbook, but it was all in vain – it was difficult for me to concentrate.

Then I bought a course for preparing for the external examination in mathematics, the history of Ukraine and the Ukrainian language and finished it completely. I prepared for the external examination on my own. I had no other way out – I had to get a state-funded place. We were told that it is impossible to get more than 190 points in three subjects. But I made it.

I could go to study in Belgium, Germany, Poland. Dad really wanted me to study abroad, but I was against it. Why? Because when I was with relatives in Poland, I felt uneasy in relation to people who stayed in Ukraine. I told my dad: “Let’s postpone studying abroad until better times. Maybe I’ll enroll abroad for a master’s degree.” He agreed.

Studying during war is difficult. When the air raid alarm sounds, we run to the bomb shelter. Once, we sat there for five hours.

I am studying at the Faculty of Journalism, but I will choose my profession when I finish my bachelor’s degree. Maybe I will study law for my master’s degree.

Taras, 17
Lviv National Academy of Arts

— I thought a lot about what I would do should the war situation get worse. My relatives live in Poland, so I could go to them. But it was more or less calm in Lviv, so I didn’t take this opportunity.

Then I chose an educational institution. Considered Germany, Austria, thought about France and the Czech Republic. However, the best option seemed to be the Warsaw University in Poland: the country is nearby, and the language is easier for me.

The thought that I could go abroad was like a knife in the heart for my girlfriend. We were close, but she could not leave with me. We considered different options, planned something, but she was still in pain. Later, friends said that she really didn’t want to come between me and my studies. I was thrown from side to side: I wanted to stay, and I wanted to go. In the end, my mother advised me to stay in Ukraine – she was probably tired of my emotional swings. But she did not push, I made the decision to stay here myself.

I regretted it once, in the winter, after my girlfriend and I broke up. But then I thought: everything happened as it should have been.

In winter, I regretted that I had made such a decision, but then I thought: everything happened as it should have been.

During the war, you also begin to understand and appreciate life, peace, freedom, country, nation, patriotic things. On a personal level, it turned into a certain growth of my courage, adulthood. When I learned that even students cannot leave the country, I was upset. I can’t say that I’m ready for drafts, but if it happens, I won’t cut off my leg or pay a bribe to get rid of it.

Tymofiy, 17
Lviv Ukrainian Catholic University

— At school, I was the boy everyone asked to help with the computer. That’s why I went into IT – not because of money, but because of curiosity. It is important for me to do what I like.

When the training started, I quickly got involved in the process. I never once regretted my decision. I don’t know how I would live if there hadn’t been covid and war, but I don’t miss my “normal” youth. My youth is quite fun and active.

At the beginning of the war, I moved to live with relatives in Lviv. I thought about finding study programs in Europe, but I didn’t want to leave my dad. And why go abroad, if there are a lot of opportunities for professional development in Ukraine? If I had left, I most likely would not have returned, and Ukraine needs help.

My parents and I talked about leaving, but I thought it was just talk because I didn’t want to leave. What is the purpose of exchanging Ukraine for neighbouring countries? In addition, I am attached to my parents and friends.

Banning students from leaving the country seems right to me. Should the departure be allowed – many people will leave for good. Who will help the country then?

There are those who want to fight with guns, but I am not like that. If I am conscripted, I will try to join the cyber troops.

Photo: Polina Polikarpova, specially for Bird in Flight

The article was created within the framework of the “Life of War” project with the support of the Laboratory of Public Interest Journalism and the Institute of Humanities (Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen).

UPD: We removed part of the words of one of the heroes, Artem, because he asked to clarify the wording.

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