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‘We are trying to focus on our studies but our minds are elsewhere’

Daniela and Oksana come from Ukraine and are studying in Leiden – Daniela is doing the Bachelor’s in International Relations and Organisations at Wijnhaven in The Hague and Oksana is in the first year of a Psychology degree in Leiden. Since 24 February – the night Putin began bombing Ukraine – their lives have changed completely. They told us about their experiences and the importance of the Emergency Fund for students.

Unchanged situation

‘I don’t know how to feel normal at the moment,’ says Daniela. ‘I know that I have to focus on my studies and assignments, but mentally I’m elsewhere.’ The weather was lovely last month, she stresses, sunny. ‘But my thoughts are in Ukraine, with my family. The situation isn’t improving there. It seems like there’s no mercy. People are dying. The Russian army is bombing everything in their way: nursery schools, shopping centres, hospitals... Nowhere is safe. And all my family is in Ukraine. I’m so worried about them. I’ve got 19-year-old friends who are suddenly in the army.’

‘I’ve got 19-year-old friends who are suddenly in the army.’

‘I’m trying to support my country by sharing real information’

Daniela’s family can’t leave, now conscription has been introduced for men in the country. ‘My father can’t leave or cross the border, my mother wants to stay with him and I’ve got a 12-year-old sister who lives with them. It’s too dangerous to travel through Ukraine, let alone cross the border anywhere,’ she says. ‘I’m in touch with them every day. I’m really grateful for that. If I couldn’t app them, I’d go crazy.’

When asked what she is doing to feel as okay as she can, the student gives a measured response. ‘I can’t,’ she says, ‘but what I can do is share the right information. Appearing at a symposium like the one at Hooglandse kerk (in Dutch), sharing stories with the international community around me in The Hague... If I share stories, people will hopefully understand what is really happening and this will stop them from being misinformed. People in Russia are too brainwashed. They believe the fake news on the TV and don’t want to listen to you anymore. Even Russian soldiers in Ukraine who tell their mothers on the phone that the real situation is different from on the TV are called liars. So I’m trying to support my country by sharing information, but I wish there was more I could do.’ 

Financial support is essential

Oksana explains that she is trying to focus as much as possible on her studies – her dream. As a first-year Psychology student, things had been going well. ‘Now I’m taking four hours to do things that usually take me two,’ she says. ‘I’m learning for my exams and then I’m going to look for a part-time job. I really wanted to focus entirely on my studies, but the situation has changed so much because of the war that I need an extra income.’ Oksana will receive financial aid from the Leiden University Fund (LUF) Ukraine Emergency Fund in the coming months to enable her to pay her tuition fees. ‘My parents can’t work anymore because of the war – they go to an air-raid shelter every day. This means they can no longer pay for my studies.’

‘I’m really grateful to the Emergency Fund donors. I really appreciate it.’ 

For Oksana, financial support is necessary. ‘I don’t know what would have happened otherwise. This isn’t really the right time to borrow money from (Ukrainian) friends. Everyone’s in the same boat. I don’t receive financial support from any other organisations. So I’m really grateful to the Emergency Fund donors. I really appreciate it.’ 

Mental support from friends

Fortunately, Daniela is receiving a lot of love from the people around her and the international friends she’s made. ‘Every form of support is useful. Every organisation that is trying to help is useful. It’s fantastic what the LUF Emergency Fund is doing for Ukrainian students, how much money has been raised. But the biggest support I can get right now is talking to my family and knowing they’re not under attack.’ 

Oksana doesn’t need help from the student psychologist at the moment either. ‘I know that it exists and that I can always sound the alarm, but at the moment I’d rather not talk about the situation. I share my thoughts and feelings with my Ukrainian friends. That helps a bit. I also try to apply some of the theory that I learn in my lectures to myself. And I tell myself everything will be alright. But constantly seeing grim images and photos of the region is tough on my mental health. If my mental health deteriorates, I may talk to a psychologist then.’

Future studies 

The two students agree about the future – after their bachelor’s degrees, they hope to do a master’s. Daniela is determined. ‘I’m going to do my very best to continue studying. I have faith in myself. I’m doing a degree in politics after all: if not me, who else? I believe I’m the person who can change things in the future. That’s my path. And I’m going to do all I can to make sure I graduate.’


*In order to protect the privacy of the students, some of the names of those involved are fictitious.

Students who are in trouble because of the war in Ukraine can count on our support. Do you want to help too? Donate now to the Emergency Fund!

Photo: AP photo of Kharkov town hall

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