The day of the invasion
“I knew they had invaded before I woke up”, Vitalii recalls. He had a dream the night before the invasion and knew something was wrong as soon as he woke up. Checking his phone at around five in the morning, he saw all the texts and news headlines. The next few days were surreal for him. “I had a constant rush of adrenaline for at least seven days in a row. I think there were seven days in a row that I protested across the Netherlands.”
Iryna had been on a phone call with her friend the night before; she had just had her last exam and was ready to relax. “I stayed up late and talked to my best friend, who was in Ukraine.” Keeping her phone on silent for the night, she did not realise anything had happened until she woke up. “It was surreal. It only dawned on me when I started seeing all the videos of missile attacks. Of course, I was scared.”
The new 'normal'
At the moment, Iryna’s parents are safe in their home in Kyiv, while her grandmothers are staying with extended family in the United States. She calls her family almost daily now and sometimes even twice. Iryna explains: “I’m probably less scared now, even though the threat remains. But, of course, it’s still hard. I understand that hundreds, probably thousands, of people are still going to die; My family and friends are still there, and you never know who the next person will be, and that’s scary.”
Iryna accepts the state of things, but remains hopeful for her country. “On the other hand, a year ago, I didn’t know whether I would still have my country. Now I’m much more certain, Because I feel like we’ve shown the world – and not least ourselves – that we can fight back.”
Vitalii’s parents are also safe in Kyiv, and he is managing to keep in contact with his family as much as possible despite the power outages. He explains that ‘death has become much closer to me; I’ve discussed death with my family and friends in Ukraine’.
However, Vitalii remains an active community member – trying to advocate for the Ukrainian people by attending demonstrations and moving on with his life. “I think we’ve all learned we should continue living our lives, having fun, being energetic, striving for our goals, because that’s what they (Russia) wants us to stop doing. So, I’ve continued living.”
In times of despair, it can be challenging to manage your emotions. During the first months of the war, Iryna felt guilty. “ I remember going outside in Rotterdam for the first time after the invasion, and people were happy and normal. I felt guilty that my family was in a different situation only a two-hour flight away.” However, Iryna’s parents are happy that she is safe, and that reassures her. “I feel like I need to put as much effort into my studies as possible, because studying is a privilege. I appreciate that it all the more now and try not to feel guilty about it.”
For Vitalii, the news took its toll on his mental health. “It was a tough time for me, because I was constantly reading the news from February till June; I don’t think there was a single day I did not read the news. I felt such exhaustion from that. I was so sick of the news that I stopped reading it for two months.” Ignoring the news while focusing on trying to keep in touch with his family improved his well-being.
A different mentality
Both Vitalii and Iryna say that their priorities have shifted because of the war. Like most other students, Iryna’s biggest concern used to be studying and doing well in exams. “I realised that studying hard is important, but it’s not my biggest concern. Many of my friends in Ukraine can’t go to university in person because of blackouts and the lack of bomb shelters. I’m making the most of my opportunities and try not to worry about exams too much. Grades are not the most important thing in life.”
The war sparked a lot of empathy in Vitalii: “I just learned to empathise with people who are suffering and support them.” The amount of support for Ukraine from world powers inspired Vitalii to continue to advocate for his country, “If I’m sitting at home and feeling down, I’m not the better version of me that can help my country – maybe even the worst version. So I just try to keep going, because then I know that I can give something back.”
Freedom and independence
Vitalii was never as patriotic as he is now. “I feel the most Ukrainian I’ve ever felt. I now know what my people stand for. However, I always knew that freedom and independence are in our blood. We would never live under occupation.” Vitalii explains he is ready to go back home. “There’s so much potential in our country, thanks to its people. When the war is over, we’ll start rebuilding. The future is bright, and I hope to be part of it one way or another.”
Iryna still has two years left to complete her bachelor’s programme, but she looks forward to beginning her life in Ukraine as soon as she is done. “I love my country, and it’s still my home. I’m hopeful that after we win – and I truly believe that we will –the entire country will change. I want to be part of that change.”