Rutgers students, faculty and staff are providing humanitarian help from more than 4,500 miles away as the horrors continue in Ukraine and the world gets a front row seat to images of dead bodies lying in the streets of the war-torn country.
The volunteers are a small but committed group who were either born in Ukraine, are first-generation Americans or have relatives fighting to stay alive. They are raising money and working to collect thousands of pounds of everyday supplies from diapers and blankets to canned food and first aid products to send overseas. They are also trying to assist students and scholars from Ukraine to find their way to the United States or provide short-term research positions to help them financially.
Rutgers officials have also reached out to current students from Ukraine and Russia to provide resources and counseling to those affected by the events in Eastern Europe.
“It’s a small thing to offer our support and remind our students, faculty and staff of the Rutgers resources available to them, but it’s clear from the responses I have received that these members of our community take real comfort from that support,” said Rutgers University President Jonathan Holloway. “Their messages to me are heartfelt and sobering.”
One first-year Rutgers-New Brunswick undergraduate left Ukraine a month before the war began. Her mother and 11-year-old brother evacuated from Ukraine and found shelter with a friend in Austria, but some relatives stayed behind. Her father and other family members are hiding out in and around Kyiv trying to stay alive despite the daily horrors.
“My mom told me that before she left, those had been the worst days of her life,” said the 22-year-old woman who is afraid to speak publicly. “And it was not even as bad as it is now. It breaks my heart to see what is going on.”
She and others including Anna Zakusylo, a first-year Robert Wood Johnson Medical School student, and Oleh Matviyishyn, who is graduating from Rutgers Law School in Newark, are watching the news and calling and texting relatives in Ukraine daily.
“Many of my relatives are in Lviv (about 40 miles from the Polish border) so they have so far been safe,” said Matviyishyn, who was born in Ukraine and moved to the United States with his family when he was six. “My mother and father are devastated and worried and angry. We all are. We’ve always worried that with Putin something like this would happen.”
He is volunteering for Razom, a nonprofit organization with a global network of 2,000 members that has united Ukraine activists throughout the United States to try to make a difference. He has joined others packing boxes, gathering donations and joining protests and demonstrations to support Ukraine.
Zakusylo, whose father was born in Ukraine and mother in Moldova, is doing the same between waiting for daily texts and phone calls from relatives still living in various parts of the country. Overall, volunteers at Rutgers have collected more than 600 pounds of donated goods shipped through Poland, which has taken in millions of refugees, to Lviv.
“It’s what I can do from here,” Zakusylo said. “I keep asking my cousins how they are doing and I can tell that they are trying to cope as best as they can. Instead of learning math or history they are learning tactical warfare and how to shelter from a missile attack.”
Students at Rutgers-Camden are also raising money and collecting supplies. Taylor Johnson-Husak, a third-year law school student who has lived in Ukraine with her Ukrainian-born husband, has been collecting donations for aid items through online purchases that are being delivered to Ukraine.
“This has been an extremely difficult month for me and my husband as we have had to sit back and watch a country we love be decimated by Russian aggression,” she said.
I keep asking my cousins how they are doing and I can tell that they are trying to cope as best as they can. Instead of learning math or history they are learning tactical warfare and how to shelter from a missile attack.
A group of about a half dozen of Rutgers faculty, meanwhile, has joined forces to try to help students, academics, scholars and researchers who are either still in Ukraine, are now refugees in other countries or want to come to the U.S.
Jan Kubik, a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Political Science in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers-New Brunswick, said many academics he knows in Ukraine need financial assistance but want to stay in Europe because their main goal is to go back to Ukraine.
“They are hoping that this nightmare will soon end and they can go back home,” said Kubik, who was born in Poland, and is also a professor of Slavonic and East European studies at University College, London. “So, we are thinking maybe there is a way that they could do research and assist us and our academic programs here without coming to the U.S.”
Many Russian academics, he said, are looking for help to get to the United States because they believe there is no future for them in a country that is shutting down free speech and has criminalized speaking about the war in Ukraine.
“From the few conversations that I’ve had about helping Russian scholars, I can say that it is a very delicate issue, which I understand,” Kubik said. “While Ukrainian colleagues understand that Russians who oppose Putin can be jailed or fired, their situation is much more tragic as they are being bombed and face death every day. While we want to figure out how to help as many displaced scholars and students as possible, we need to be sensitive to such differences in circumstances.”
Eric Garfunkel, vice president for global affairs at Rutgers and head of Rutgers Global, said the university has so far received only a few requests to host Ukrainian refugees, but is partnering with the Rutgers University Foundation to raise and secure the philanthropic support likely needed in the near future.
“We will continue to do what we can for refugee students and scholars by providing information and support,” he said. “We know the situation is evolving but we want to be ready to help in any way we can.’’
Rutgers Global will be hosting an event to discuss the Ukrainian, Afghan and potential future refugee crises entitled “Higher Education Response to Refugee and Displaced Students and Scholars: Toward Sustainable Solutions” on Friday, April 22, starting at 9:30 a.m.