Just a few weeks ago, Alex Zamer and Marta Perehnets, fourth- and first-year political science students at the University of Toronto, were organizing cultural activities with the Ukrainian Students’ Club.
But ever since Russia’s attack on Ukraine, they’ve spent their days calling each other and their families, boxing medicines and supplies and even trying to procure bulletproof vests. At night, they fret, unable to sleep more than a few hours. Perehinets describes it as living through one long day.
Still, doing nothing is not an option.
“Now our group chat does not stop; my phone is vibrating all day,” Zamer says. “It’s just people coming in with bright ideas, people coming in with the willingness and ability (to support Ukraine).”
For Ukrainian students like Zamer and Perehinets, studying now seems the least of their worries. They lack focus and can’t help feeling school work is trivial in the scheme of world events.
But the school year continues, and with that comes deadlines. Zamer was too overwhelmed to write his midterm recently. He asked for a deferral and his professor granted him one.
Perehinets wasn’t so lucky. Despite making it clear she was helping her cousin find asylum and searching the city for tactical gear, she says one of her professors and a teacher’s assistant told her school policy only allowed for a two-day grace period.
There are other conflicts in the world right now, Perehinets was told, and it would not be fair to grant her an extension beyond university policy.
From cultural events to procuring bulletproof vests and sending supplies, Russia’s attacks on Ukraine have upended the lives of Ukrainian-Canadian students.
“Reading that, I got sick. I got physically ill,” she says. “I thought, how ridiculous is it that they weren’t extending that to other students, that they’re prioritizing course policy over human lives.”
Perehinets’ reprieve was eventually extended to seven days. Still, the Ukrainian Students’ Club felt it needed to speak out.
“Our organization speaks not just on behalf of Ukrainains, but on behalf of other students who have other families that are found in conflicts,” Zamer says.
Danya Pankiw, president of the national Ukrainian Canadian Students Union (SUSK), says her organization has been contacting post-secondary institutions on behalf of Ukrainian students in Canada to seek academic accommodations, mental health resources and correct inaccuracies in some university statements.
Pankiw says there is no unified policy governing academic accommodation; it differs from school to school and even sometimes among individual instructors.
Pankiw says SUSK is also requesting student access to mental health and wellness supports within 24 hours, despite a backlog of services.
“It does seem as though they are working to provide that,” she says.
SUSK has heard Ukrainian students are also disturbed by the terminology used on campuses to describe the situation in Ukraine.
SUSK is asking schools to stop referring to the invasion as a “conflict” or “crisis,” which it says doesn’t reflect Russia’s naked aggression in the war.
Some universities are also still referring to the country as “the Ukraine” in campus-wide statements, says Pankiw. Perehinets says her teacher’s aide referred to the country as the Ukraine.
Referring to the country as “the Ukraine” is a call-back to the Soviet era that undermines Ukrainian sovereignty. The Associated Press stopped using the term in 1991.
“It’s almost using the same condescending way that Putin refers to Ukraine, and this has been obsolete since Ukraine gained its independence,” she says.
Since the invasion of Ukraine began, Ukrainian students have been shaken and shocked but also unified and committed to supporting their friends, families and ancestral land.
“Whoever comes across this article, they ought to know that Putin has waged war not against the Ukrainian military but against the entire Ukrainian nation,” Zamer says.
“We’re a very proud people, we’re never backing down and we’re always working to help each other.”
Matteo Cimellaro / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer