By Franciszek Dziduch
When third-year Science major Dasha Protsenko woke up on 24 February at 8:00, she opened Twitter and saw the news that Russia had invaded Ukraine 3 hours before. Instead of working on her capstone, she would stay in bed all-day long. She found herself incapable of going to the first protest happening in the inner city of Amsterdam. “I was in a state of shock and disbelief,” she says.
Neither did Sasha Sushko, a Russian passport holding second-year Social Science student. “My world crashed when I woke up that day,” she says. Like Protsenko, she stayed in bed, sobbing and skipping classes. For the first time she felt alienated from her friends – “their world would go on while mine had stopped,” she says. Soon after, she would force herself to attend classes again, knowing she may not go back to Russia or Ukraine for a long time.
The night before 24 February, Zofia Majchrzak, a second-year Humanities student from Poland, asked a friend during a phone call whether he believed that Russia would invade Ukraine. His answer was a firm no. The next morning, after a sleepless night, she received a message that Russian troops had trespassed the border. She would spend the rest of the day watching the live coverage of the emerging war.
Agne Cepaite, a Lithuanian second-year Science major, slept badly the night before the invasion, having a “bad gut feeling”. When she went to the academic building (AB) the next morning, she was overwhelmed by a sense of loneliness; the war happening just across 2,000 kilometres was a topic raised by nobody around her. The same evening, she went to the Dam square with fellow Lithuanians to protest. “There were around 10 people there, Russians and Ukrainains,” she recalls, “It was a very sombre, sad moment.”
After coming, Cepaite messaged the AUCSA representative whether she could use the white board the next day to write supportive messages and develop a platform through which the student body can express solidarity. Initially she meant to devote only her lunch break for that, but ended up staying for over five hours, surprised by the attention it gained; “Many people were approaching the board, scribbling solidarity messages. Everyone was feeling what I felt, but no one knew what to do.”
As the weekend passed, Cepaite knew that she wanted to continue doing more. As fellow students asked how they could help, eventually, a group of fifteen people was formed. Their first action: to organise a collection point in the AB. Over the course of the next few days, AUC became the only collection point that was accessible in Amsterdam. “We ended up collecting 107 boxes, it was quite impactful,” Cepaite notes. Next, Protsenko reached out to Students 4 Ukraine, a nation-wide organisation established in various cities across the Netherlands. Together, they managed to organise a transport with the donations being sent directly to Ukraine.
Ever since, Cepaite, Protsenko, Sushko, and others, formed a branch organisation called Students4Ukraine x AUC. The group is divided into four teams, focusing on PR, logistics, outreach, and local help. Cepaite, who is the coordinator of the outreach group, admits that they have been “struggling to get the momentum flowing”. As students, their resources are limited and thus have to step out of the AUC bubble for large-scale support. “The goal for now is to connect to companies and more wealthy people in Amsterdam that could make greater contributions”.
Sushko, coordinator of the team focusing on the local support, states that “we are looking for spare bikes that the refugees could use, finding people who are willing to host, and helping to store warm food in the hostels”. She also collaborated with Right2Education, a student-led NGO that organises Dutch and English classes for refugees in Amsterdam, which Sushko promoted amongst Ukrainian refugees through translating the posters and advertising it in refugee hostels.
As explained by Right2Education board members Toby Biggs O’May and Fee Kienhuis, both second-year Humanities majors, the organisation consists of two parts: the educational one, with the free language courses taught by AUC, UVA and VU students, and the social one, which means establishing a buddy system which pairs language teachers with the students, with a variety of events being organised weekly. This way, Right2Education promotes a community that “builds the bridge between the university and refugee populations,” as remarked by Biggs O’May.
Both co-coordinators admit that, at first, they did not realise how much the war was going to affect them as an organisation. “It all happened so fast,” says Kienhuis, “But once we became aware of the massive influx of Ukrainian refugees in the Netherlands, we made sure to reach out to them, with the help of Sasha.” To adjust to the new situation, the organisation expanded by adding two more classes. Now, some of the groups are almost all Ukrainians and the board members are making sure that they can attend the social events they come up with, such as museum visits, sport games, or potluck dinners in the common room.
The active engagement of Protsenko, Sushko, and Cepaite with the Ukrainian crisis did not go unnoticed. After the war broke out, Majchrzak and Natalia Zalega, a second-year Humanities major, felt the need to initiate a broader conversation in the AUC community. With the help of Maxim Kupovykh, a Social Science lecturer at AUC born in the former USSR, they decided to create an event that would give a platform to the people from the affected region to have an open discussion with an audience about the war in Ukraine. Apart from inviting the aforementioned students, they invited several panellists, among others two Ukrainians living in Poland, two Ukrainian refugees living in Amsterdam, a woman who came from the US to coordinate the volunteering activities in Poland and a Pole who helps with organising the transport for the refugees. For Majchrzak and Zalega, it was important to sharpen the voices of Russians and Ukrainians in the AUC student body. The discussion was held in a hybrid mode and divided into two parts: Panellists first introduced themselves and talked about their relation to the war. Afterwards, the audience could ask them questions, which in turn varied from how to treat Russian culture to how to support Ukrainians. Majchrzak remarks that one of the most important moments of the event was Cepaite’s reading of her journal entry that she wrote right after photos of the Bucha massacre had been released into the world.
How can AUC students get involved? Protsenko emphasises that the help does not need to be monetary, but that students can also devote their time. “If you’re working, ask your restaurant and shops whether they can donate anything, as food is very much needed,” she says. Sushko highlights that they are in desperate need for more bikes for refugees in Amsterdam. She also believes that the conversations about the war should be held in classes. Cepaite points out that each team of the organisation has a WhatsApp group chat and that everyone is welcome to join. She also mentions that each week, there is a Student 4 Ukraine truck that goes to Delft to be filled with necessities, but recently the donations have become more sparse, while the demand has continued to increase. All the interviewees emphasise that the students are most welcome to join Students 4 Ukraine x AUC’s respective teams.
For Protsenko, it is saddening that she observes a decrease in conversation about the war within the AUC community: “I wish people reminded themselves that this is still happening.”
Find here the QR codes to join the Students4Ukraine x AUC WhatsApp group chats: