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Written by:
Paul Holland
24 Mar 2022

Today marks a month since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Olenka Dmytryk is a PhD student at Trinity Hall who’s just submitted her thesis and should be celebrating. Instead she’s working with the Ukrainian Society to mobilise support for her home country and to protest against the invasion.

It was 3am on February 24 and Olenka Dmytryk was sat in Cambridge, talking on the phone to her mother who was 2,000 miles away in a town near Mariupol. It was 5am in Ukraine and Olenka’s mother said “There’s been an explosion.”

Olenka, who’d been watching the news about her home country and a possible Russian invasion, told her mother to run and get to a train station. What followed was a “miracle” says Olenka.

“For months before that in Ukrainian news there were conversation about Russian aggression and over New Year there were news items about how to pack an emergency suitcase.

“We live in a town near Mariupol; and I thought it very likely that Russia would attack through the Donbas so our town would be a target. I was begging my mum to pack and prepare but mum was saying: ‘OK – we have a house and we can hide and Putin is just scaring us’.

“The night before the invasion I did not sleep as I was so stressed. I was watching a meeting where they were telling Putin to stop and not do it: I could tell something serous was going to happen. I waited until 3am and I called her (5am in Ukraine) and she picked up immediately and said there was an explosion. I told her to run and get to a train station.”

After that first call Olenka spent the day helping her mother flee their family-home and seek refuge across the far-off Polish border: “I was on the phone with her all day looking for train tickets, asking her to message me every hour. I’d send tickets to her phone. By the end of her journey the situation had changed so much that we no longer needed tickets as trains were accepting everyone.

“By sheer luck she got across Ukraine in a two day journey. I call it a miracle. It was like something from the Second World War.”

Her mother, like millions of Ukrainians since the invasion, now finds herself in a different country, with no idea if the family-home is still standing. She’s now staying with family (Olenka’s sister) in Poland.

Protest image credit: Alice Chapman

Days before that frantic tale of escape, Olenka had submitted her thesis on gender, sexuality and social movements in Ukraine to the University of Cambridge. A PhD student at Trinity Hall, she’s been studying Slavonic studies and, feeling that something was about to happen, wanted to submit her work so she could concentrate her efforts should the worst happen. She’s the Vice-President of the Cambridge University Ukrainian Society and they’ve been working tirelessly this month to raise awareness about the war.

“I knew something was coming, but nobody could expect the sheer scale of what happened. I am now hoping to get my mum over here, as are many of the society members. The systems that exist are quite slow. I don’t have words to describe.

“I am in a lucky situation as I only have my mother and sister to worry about and my sister is in Poland. I am trying to get my mum here so that my sister can take in more people.”

Olenka is ‘realistic’ about the future: “What is happening in Ukraine now is defining the future of Europe and the whole world. I am optimistic, but I am also realistic – we need more support, as our common future depends on what each of us does in the present.

“I plan to return soon to help rebuild my country when it is finally free of Russian troops. Oksana, a President of our society, is an architect, so we have great plans already.”

There are many ways people can help said Olenka: “The quickest way is to donate – we have direct links for donations to Ukraine on our blog. However, there are so many more ways to help! From asking your MP for more support to Ukraine, to: organising your own fundraisers and charity events; hosting refugees; and sharing information about Ukraine on social media (to oppose the Russian information war). I would say, just think of what skills and resources you have, and use them to bring peace to Ukraine and to Europe.”

The Cambridge University Ukrainian Society has held vigils, run protests in King’s Parade and tried to help establish links between the University, donors and Ukraine. They have set up a Cambridge4Ukraine volunteer initiative that helps refugees to find hosts in the UK via the Homes For Ukraine scheme.

While Cambridge4Ukraine website will go live soon, all details are currently on the CUUS Facebook page. They are always looking for volunteers and support and will be holding a Peace March this Saturday (March 26) in Sidgwick Avenue.