Students share experience of struggle during wartime
In 2013, retired principal and Dunmore resident Charles “Bill” Young went to Romania with the Campus Crusade for Christ to teach college students in the English Club.
English Club is a program utilized by several Eastern European universities to have native speaking Americans teach a two-week course in their countries.
When the call came to return to the English Club, Young found himself in Kiev, Ukraine. He and his brother, Steve, planned to go to the Ukraine in the spring of 2014, but due to a war between Russia and Ukraine, the trip was put on hold.
The conflict erupted in February 2014 when Russian special forces and pro-Russian separatists occupied the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, which was considered part of Ukraine.
The battle for Crimea and Ukraine’s freedom from Russia has continued through 2014 until a ceasefire was brokered in September.
With the ceasefire in place, Young and his brother packed their bags and flew to Ukraine to continue their work with English Club.
In the second week of their stay, Young held a Skype interview with this reporter and invited ministry team staff member Tayna and student Zhenia to share their stories of life in Ukraine.
“We had two-hundred-fifteen students,” Young said. “This is the largest English Club or classes that we’ve had in any of them that we do. We had nine classes. My class was pretty normal, but overall, the group was the largest that we’ve ever been a part of.”
Young explained that things are normal right now in Kiev because the conflict is in the eastern part of Ukraine, but the university, Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, is feeling the strain.
“In Kiev, things are pretty normal,” he said. “You wouldn’t know there’s anything going on in Ukraine just from me or our group observing them. The thing that hit me was there are a number of students who have transferred into their university to take classes this summer because their university’s on the eastern part of the country are not open.
“We met with one of the Deans yesterday and he was sharing the difficulty of students showing up,” Young continued. “They had no records. They had nothing to show that they took a particular class and so they put them in classes where the students told them they belonged, and now they’re going to have to reassess that at the end of this semester to see what they need to do from here.”
Tanya, 25, moved to Kiev three years ago and became a member of the ministry staff after participating in the English Club as a student.
“My last year I went through this program, I went to Ocean City, Maryland, and there I met Steve and Uncle Bill [Young],” Tanya said. “After my trip to Ocean City, I decided to be a missionary and when I came back to the Ukraine, I decided to be in the ministry.”
Zhenia, 20, is a student at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv where he is pursuing a degree in applied statistics. As a freshman in 2012, Zhenia attended English Club where he made a life-changing decision.
“It was special and that was the first time I read the Bible,” Zhenia said. “I started to ask myself about the purpose of my life and then after some time, I accepted Jesus and turned my life [around] and now I”m happy that I’m with God.
“Now I help,” he continued. “I’m a student volunteer on campus and student leader, and I help to organize in the English Club. I also try to help build good relations with students and to show them that we love them and God loves them.”
Zhenia also participated in the program at Ocean City, Maryland, where he shared his story with students from all over the world.
“I have a lot of friends now and I had the opportunity to share the gospel with them to show how God changed me,” he said. “He changed my character and that it’s not just blind faith, it’s faith which has had a lot of proof in my life. I can tell it’s not because someone told me there is a God but because I experienced it in my own life.”
Faith helped Zhenia and many fellow students get through the difficult times during the war. While the majority of the conflict is in eastern Ukraine, in February, the fight came to Independence Square in the center of Kiev, where students, including Zhenia and Tanya, demonstrated against the war and gave assistance to individuals and soldiers harmed during the fight.
“During that time, it was hard for us because we had some situations when studies were closed because of the risk,” Zhenia said. “There were some demonstrations and some fighting, and students were scared. All students also united and when we saw there were fighters and snipers shooting on Independence Square, we gathered money, some medication from the pharmacies, then we went to give this medicine or other things we bought to people in need.
“A lot of students were there in the center of the situation and it was dangerous, but God was with us and He helped us,” Zhenia said.
Tanya said the ministry gathered each Sunday to assist with supplies, as well.
“Each Sunday during the three months, people gathered and they still bring some medicines and food,” she said. “I’ve been there several times. Usually our ministry would go to the Main Square when it was safe and we shared gospel, and we served in one Christian Camp with food.”
The students have also felt the strain of the conflict because many eastern Ukraine students have transferred in, making classes larger. The schedule has also changed because the universities cannot afford to stay open during the winter due to the monetary strain of war.
“Because of the problems with Russia – Russia stopped transit guests to Ukraine – everything is going to be closed in the winter because we need to save money,” Zhenia said. “We don’t have enough resources to heat the university and the buildings so now we have short studies. Usually we go through the whole winter but now we go until the end of December and have two months of holidays because the government doesn’t have money to pay for bills.”
The strain may make life difficult for all residents, but the Ukrainians stand behind the government and understand the reason for the conflict.
“The main change that a lot of people realized – they are Ukrainians and they realized that they live in an independent country,” Zhenia said. “We had a lot of arguments between students because some of them said Russia is doing right, but this situation gathered students and a lot of them wear the national flag to show that we are one country. We don’t want to separate. We don’t want to fight and we want to help. A lot of students, they realized that we can’t live as we lived before. We should be honest and we should fight corruption which is the main problem in our country.
“I’m happy that God provided us this situation because Ukraine would be never the same as it was before and freedom is not free,” Zhenia continued. “We should build our freedom. We should fight for our rights and when we got independence, actually, no one fought for it, it was like a gift, but no one really realized what gift it was. Now time came where we should realize that we are an independent country and we are a great nation, and we should show the whole world that we are not part of Russia.”
Like their American counterparts, the Ukrainian students shared their opinions about the war through protest and demonstrations at the universities and in Independence Square.
“A lot of people do that,” Zhenia said. “We have a lot of protests like people in the main squares of the cities. They go with the national flag and they tell the whole world that we want to have peace. That we don’t want to fight.”
The students also support organizations that give support to the soldiers who were wounded during the war, and families who have lost loved ones.
“A lot of families have their husbands, fathers in the eastern part [of Ukraine] for five, six, seven months,” Zhenia said. “They haven’t seen each other and a lot of people have died or they are in hospitals. Some of them don’t have hands or legs and they need a lot of medication. I think in the whole Ukraine there are different organizations that gather money to help these people because the government doesn’t have enough money.
“It’s really great support because when they are in the war for a long time, it’s great psychological stress and a lot of people can become crazy,” Zhenia continued. “They appreciate the support and they hope that everything will finish early because no one wants to have this situation in the Ukraine.”
No one in the Ukraine is sure when the conflict will end and when the Russian troops will take their leave. In the meantime, Zhenia and Tanya said the best thing Americans can do for the Ukrainians is to keep them in their thoughts.
“It’s more moral help [that we need],” Zhenia said. “If you know all of the countries are with you and they remind you that you are not alone.”
“What encouraged me over the last months is I know our president has been to America maybe a couple of times, our prime minister also and it’s a unique time in Ukraine,” Tayna said. “We had never had such a government and president who came to the United States. Your politicians encouraging [our president] and listening to him, it’s unusual things. It will help somehow.”
After just two weeks, Young and his brother, Steve, returned to the U.S., and Zhenia and Tayna returned to classes at the university.
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org