'Are you still alive?' Ukraine-USF connections cry out from Tampa

“We used to pray for peace, now we pray for victory. Victory for Ukraine, for Europe and for the whole world so we can all live in peace,” says Anya Bahvala, a native of Ukraine who has been an instructor at the University of South Florida Tampa since 2015.

A student success specialist for the University of South Florida College of Business School of Information Systems and Management, Bahvala grew up in Dnipro, a city in central Ukraine now under attack by Russian forces.

“I have been crying literally every day. When it’s your own country, your own people, I just can’t describe how it feels,” says Bahvala. “It’s just so hard to comprehend.”

It’s especially different, she says, since almost everyone in her home town has relatives in Russia.

“My first language was Russian and then I learned Ukrainian,” she explains.

She feels fortunate that her extended family, including both of her parents and their spouses, had already emigrated to the United States before the war broke out. But many of her close friends and former classmates from childhood remain in Ukraine.

“We are very close with our classmates because we go from elementary school all the way to high school and take all of our classes together,” says Bahvala. “We develop very close friendships, almost like siblings.”

That makes it even more difficult to hear of the devastation they are suffering. 

“Every call starts with asking, ‘are you still alive?’ ” says Bahvala. “One of my classmates who volunteers to help refugees told me he had just helped a teenager who had lost both legs get on a train to evacuate. My friend said he has no fear left, just rage.”

Another classmate from Kyiv who is a professor at the university there stayed through the bombing for about a week before she and her daughter could get out. 

“She sent me photos of them sleeping at the railway station,” says Bahvala. “I just can’t imagine. When you have to leave your house and your job, taking only what you can carry.”

Thinking global

Anastasiya Pylypenko was born and grew up in Lviv, the largest city in western Ukraine, about an hour from the border with Poland. In 2011 she was fortunate to be selected for the Future Leaders Exchange Program, which provides scholarships for high school students from Europe and Eurasia to live with an American family and attend an American high school for the school year.

That experience kindled her interest in other cultures.  She went to college in Spain in a similar exchange program sponsored by the Spanish government. Four years ago she moved to Chicago, IL, where she worked as a court interpreter and taught English as a second language to recent immigrants. Then two years ago, she came to Tampa, enrolling in the University of South Florida. In a few weeks she’ll be graduating with a master’s degree in linguistics.  

“I love languages,” says Pylypenko. “My view of the world is as a globalized system.”

Along the way, she’s become fluent in English, Spanish, Ukrainian and Polish, and has a basic understanding of Persian, Farsi and French.

When she’s not studying or working, she attends the Epiphany Ukrainian Catholic Church in St. Petersburg, which recently collected thousands of hygiene items and first aid kits for Ukrainian families. 

She’s also been donating directly to friends, former classmates and acquaintances in Ukraine, usually in response to social media posts requesting help, especially for first aid supplies and for protective clothing and similar items for soldiers. A recent purchase of earrings in blue and yellow on Etsy from an artist in the Ukraine is “something from the homeland that is also helping the artist,” she says.

One of her biggest concerns is the safety of her family, who remain in Lviv. “My father works for the government and would never think of immigrating -- of leaving,” says Pylypenko.

While at the moment, the fighting in western Ukraine isn’t as bad as the eastern part of the country, no one in Ukraine is safe, she says. “This is not just war, it’s genocide. It’s crazy how many people’s lives have been ruined.”

Building community

Ivan Cherniavskyi will be graduating from USF in a few weeks with a bachelor’s degree in advertising and public relations. But in the meantime, he’s been working with nine other USF students from the Ukraine to raise awareness among the student body about the tragedy unfolding there.

“We didn’t really know each other before and now the 10 of us from the Ukraine feel like a family,” says Cherniavskyi. “It's helped us develop a sense of community, holding us together as we work toward our goal of making our voices heard.”

Although the Ukrainian students are not an officially registered organization, he says USF has been supportive and they’ve been working closely with the USF student government to organize their events and promote their cause.

After graduating, he and his wife Juliana will be moving to Canada, where she will study data analytics at McGill University. He hopes to work for a nonprofit organization helping people and to continue his mission to raise awareness about Ukraine.

“My family is still in Kyiv -- my mother, father, grandparents and brothers,” says Cherniavskyi. “I worry about them. I tried to talk to them about immigrating to Europe, but they said ‘no’. My mother told me there is no point for soldiers to defend an empty city.”

Adding context

Dr. Tatsiana Kulakevich is an assistant professor of research methods and quantitative analysis in the USF School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies and a research fellow and affiliate faculty at the USF Institute on Russia.  

A native of Belarus, Kulakevich has a master’s degree in international relations from New York University and a Ph.D. in political science from Rutgers University.  Her specialty -- teaching the politics of Eastern Europe, including the Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, Hungary, the Baltics and Russia -- puts her right in the middle of current events.

What makes the Russian invasion of Ukraine most disturbing is that the two countries are close culturally with many people having families in both countries, says Kulakevich. But on the other hand, she says, the fighting with Russia on Ukraine’s eastern border is not new -- it’s been going on since 2014 since the annexation of Crimea.
 
“Before 2014, Ukraine was a divided country. The eastern part was more leaning toward Russia and the Western part was more leaning toward the West and Europe,” says Kulakevich. “But 2014 changed everything and united the country.”

The political situation in Belarus is also having an impact on Ukraine. More than 100,000 people have fled Belarus since 2020 because of political repression there, says Kulakevich. Many have emigrated to the Ukraine and are now joining in to fight their common enemy.

“A dear friend of mine from Belarus joined the territorial defense in Ukraine and posted a picture on Instagram. In the trunk of his car there were two cases of flowers for International Women’s Day next to his rifle. He said to me, ‘This is everyday life here now. Living my life with a rifle.' ”
 

Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.