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‘Let’s hope’ - Ukraine-born students on Russian invasion two years on


Student stood up next to railing in university atrium building

Ukraine-born students from the University of Bradford have given an insight into how their lives have changed on the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion on their homeland.

On 24 February 2022 Russia invaded Ukraine as part of its long-running conflict with its neighbouring country, which dates back to 2014. 

Now students who fled Ukraine for a safer life in Bradford have revealed what has happened to them over the last two years, and their hopes and plans for the future.

Kateryna Mashchenko says she still gets flashbacks about the war as she looks ahead at reprising her role as a humanitarian worker following the completion of her studies.

She completed her MA in Conflict, Peace and Development at the University of Bradford in December 2023, but vividly remembers her time fleeing Ukraine in the first few months of the conflict the previous year. 

Kateryna, 38, grew up in Berdyansk near Mariupol, a city which was destroyed during the early months of the Russian invasion. She joined an international humanitarian organisation in 2014 and had worked in Mariupol for four years before the start of the conflict. 

20-day wait 

She recalls the start of the Russian invasion in 2022: “It is still like yesterday, 24 February, around 3am, my best friend woke me up with her call; ‘The war started’, and I heard explosions. I was helping to evacuate my friends, who did not have a car, to Berdyansk, which was soon occupied by the Russian troops.”

Accompanied by her godmother, Kateryna faced a 20-day wait to leave occupied Ukraine. During this time, she also lost contact for seven days with her father, brother and her nephews, who were stuck in a hostile area. 

By March 2022, Kateryna drove from occupied Berdyansk to free Zaporizhia, passing through 16 Russian checkpoints, unexploded missiles in the middle of the road, burned military machinery and sounds of shelling before they reached freedom. 

Kateryna kept up with her humanitarian work, helping people affected by the war along her journey to the UK. She and her godmother reached the south coast of England in July 2022 before Kateryna moved up to start her studies at the University of Bradford in September 2022. 

She still has her father, brother and two nephews living in Ukraine, but says she is in regular contact with them. Her brother was called up to serve in the Ukraine military and was injured in the conflict in summer 2023 but has since recovered and returned to military duty.

Kateryna said: “Of course, I have flashbacks every day and pain. Last year was a reflection year for me, of understanding and processing things and accepting the reality. 

The war will still take a while. I believe all wars have endings at some point. Let’s hope. To see people in Ukraine suffering is not easy

“It’s very tiring to be in the same emotions after two years. I feel numbness, I know it’s not good. This is the survival mode, psychologically. I am prepared for the worst news, but of course, I pray that this war will end, and I could have access to go back home to where I was born.”

Helping others 

Kateryna is next aiming to become a humanitarian worker in the Middle East.  
She added: “I am trying to remain positive. I have made a lot of friends who have been very supportive.

“The second anniversary will almost be like a turning point for me. I need to carry on my humanitarian job. There are people suffering more than me. 

“As long as I have legs, hands and a brain I need to use them properly to help other people.”

Professor Prathivadi Anand, Professor of Public Policy and Sustainability at the University of Bradford’s School of Social Sciences and Head of the Department of Peace Studies and International Development, said: “Kateryna has presented a seminar on Ukraine and through her we got a first person account of someone directly affected by this war. 

“However, she never let the challenges she and her fellow citizens have been facing affect her spirit of positivity, curiosity and personal resilience as she would always greet you with a big smile. 

“There can be no better ambassador for the Department of Peace Studies and International Development than her.”

Student stood outside main university building

Meanwhile, Elina Bodnar, 19, pictured above, a second year student on the University of Bradford’s BA (Hons) Graphics for Games course, says she has enjoyed her time living in the UK. 

She and her mother Jana and brother Oleksii fled their home in Pokrovsk in Eastern Ukraine and arrived in the UK in July 2022 as part of the Homes for Ukraine. They initially lived with their sponsors in Wiltshire. 

Elina enrolled as a student at the University of Bradford in October 2022 and has transferred her talent and passion for art into the world of gaming. 

Elina recalls seeing a picture of a home destroyed by bombing in her hometown in Ukraine and fearing it was her grandparent’s house, but it turned out that it wasn’t.

She also revealed seeing pictures of a bombing attack on the hospital where her father works and fearing he fell victim, but again he was safe and well. 

Life has completely changed  

Elina also revealed she was playing a video game online with her friends back in Ukraine and could hear sirens due to an attack on the town. 

She said: “I know about everything that is happening in Ukraine from my grandparents and my friends. I message them every day and ask how they are. 

“My grandparents and friends live in one of the most dangerous regions. I really worry about them. So many of the bombs landed in our town every day. It’s always very stressful. 

“One of the destroyed buildings looked like my grandparents’ house. I just looked at the pictures and there were bricks everywhere. 

“When I called my friends back home on video games I could hear a siren. I could hear it through the microphone, hearing them in the background. 

“The second anniversary is not a time for celebration. I am proud to be Ukrainian. My mother, brother, father, grandparents and friends are from there. My mother and my brother live in Wiltshire. They are safe and well. 

“My dad just can’t leave the country (Ukraine), the border is closed. My mother went back to Ukraine before Christmas to see my grandparents and she was shocked by what she saw. 

My life has completely changed. I have the student life that I dreamed of. At the same time, you have this situation in your mind and you struggle with it

“I don’t think I will go back to Ukraine even when the war is finished. Half of Ukraine has been destroyed now. I hope that I can stay in the UK. I just want to lead a normal life.”

Assistant Professor Robert Redman, who runs the Graphics for Games programme at the University of Bradford, said: “Elina has really blossomed as a student, taking the challenges of transferring her skillsets and study mode to being at an English university like all of her peers, and effortlessly becoming one of her fun and engaged peer group. 

“She has offered insight where others have missed key concepts, and has offered an alternative viewpoint when discussing complex or differing-from-the-normal situations.”