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The war in Ukraine touches the University of Wyoming campus

People sit in a classroom holding various signs with phrases of support for Ukraine and the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag.
Photo courtesy of Anastasiia Pereverten
Members of the UW community rally for Ukraine during an indoor event Wednesday.

Anastasiia Pereverten has been in the U.S. for less than two months as a foreign exchange student and cultural studies major at the University of Wyoming. In February, as Russian President Vladimir Putin moved more and more troops to the Ukrainian border, Ana's family and friends in Kyiv thought that an all-out invasion was unlikely.

"Everyone was like, 'No, they're just trying to intimidate us,' 'They're just trying to create this pressure to make us sign a treaty,'" she said. "So everyone was very skeptical."

Ana was skeptical as well, but was also keenly aware of the danger posed by Russia. Ana was 11 when Putin annexed Crimea. She's 19 now and sees the two incursions as what they are, part of the same aggression against her country.

"It is simple ignorance to say there is a threat of war now, because it has been happening for eight years," Ana said.

But that didn't make the start of the invasion two weeks ago any less shocking. Ana didn't believe the first news buzzes she got about Russian troops and missiles on Ukrainian land. She started furiously googling for other news stories.

"More googling, it's not a fake," she said. "More googling, it's a bomb twenty minutes away from my home."

She called her parents. The call was dropped. They called again. She learned the explosion near her home was Ukrainian forces shooting down a Russian plane. Ana got in touch with fellow Ukrainians living across the U.S.

"No one was crying because no one could even grasp what was going on," she said. "So everyone was just trying to contact their family in different cities."

Ana and the others were forced to watch the atrocities play out at home from thousands of miles away. Ana stayed up all night making stickers and buttons with the Ukrainian flag and the Ukrainian trident. She would spend the next two weeks at a dead sprint, talking to student senators, the Laramie City Council and university administration, advocating for donations and for political action, urging fellow students to contact their representatives and educating everyone who would listen about her home country.

"For me, I don't divide dates or days of the week," she said. "It's just been one complete day, the longest day of my life."

Ukrainians have captured the world's attention - and admiration - as they resist invading Russian forces. The war is personally impacting members of the University of Wyoming community.

Economics associate professor Sasha Skiba was born in Ukraine back when it was part of the Soviet Union.

"So, I got to experience this Soviet upbringing, or this Soviet reality, from 77 until 91," he said.

Skiba came to the U.S. as a foreign exchange student in the late nineties. He worked his way through graduate school and into university teaching positions, eventually coming to Laramie.

Skiba said he knew the invasion was coming when Putin started talking about Russia's "spiritual space" - the idea that Ukraine belongs to Russia.

"I was like, 'Okay, so we're having conversations outside of the logic-cost and benefit analysis. We're talking about this abstract idea,'" he said. "For me, for lack of a better word, I kind of freaked out."

Now Skiba's homeland is under attack, and his countrymen are fighting back against the invaders. But Skiba must watch from more than 5,000 miles away. He said he's keenly aware of just how easily his life could be different right now.

"If I was in Ukraine, I would be thinking about evacuating children and thinking about taking up arms and fighting the Russians," he said. "It's like a guilt, almost, that I'm not there to help them. But it's also a driving force to write, to collect money, to reach out, to do what you can to change people's minds."

Skiba's parents are still in Rivne, near the Polish border. His father still goes to work, even as they adjust to the new normal of air raid sirens and cruise missiles in the sky above.

"People ask how my parents are and I'm saying, 'Oh no, they're fine, they're only having cruise missiles launched at their town, so they're fine,'" Skiba said. "That's kind of the new reality at this point."

In Laramie, the university put out a statement supporting those affected by the war, and Ana helped to host a rally this week that drew dozens, despite a vicious snowstorm.

UW master's student Katherine Fitch was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine from 2016 to 2020, when she was forced to evacuate by the pandemic. During her time there, she fell in love with the landscape, the people, and another Peace Corps volunteer. She's staying in touch with her Ukrainian friends via Telegram.

"I'm amazed by not only their patriotism, but their steadfastness in believing that they will win this war," she said.

Fitch said she's also moved by the international response for a country she loves, but which many foreigners know nothing about.

"This is a time when we've seen unification all throughout Europe as we've never seen before, and around the world," she said. "This was an unjust act and it's unifying us in the injustice."

The outpouring of support for Ukraine has also inspired Megan Neville, a former UW student who moved to Ukraine just last year.

"I think there's something really motivational about seeing how brave people in Ukraine are and how ready they are to protect their country," Neville said.

Neville and her Ukrainian partner are currently stuck in Thailand, having gone there just before the outbreak of violence. They are ravenously consuming every scrap of news about their home country and trying to plot their next steps.

"We have no home right now because we can't return to Ukraine," Neville said. "Our second option would be to go to the U.S. but the U.S. isn't currently accepting Ukrainian refugees and it's extremely difficult for Ukrainians to get visas from the U.S. It's expensive. It takes a lot of time. Most people spend years waiting."

But Neville is glad that the war has at least placed a spotlight on a country many in the U.S. know little about. More than ever, people outside the country are learning about Ukraine.

"Before I was connected with Ukraine, I had some misconceptions about it," Neville said. "Even after moving there, a lot of my friends ask questions like, 'Oh, is Ukraine part of Russia?' or they say 'the Ukraine' and 'Kee-ev' instead of 'Ukraine' and 'Keev.'"

While Ukrainians are in the streets fighting Russians, Professor Skiba said the world's attention is needed because the war will affect many lives beyond Ukraine's western border. Putin, he said, will not stop at Ukraine.

"Ukrainians are fighting now, and we understand it's our land and it's our business at some point," Skiba said. "But if Ukraine falls, it will be a much, much different scenario and the immediate European allies are going to be affected very, very directly."

Jeff is a part-time reporter for Wyoming Public Media, as well as the owner and editor of the Laramie Reporter, a free online news source providing in-depth and investigative coverage of local events and trends.
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