The McMaster Ukrainian Student Association on community support and how war permeates the personal lives of Ukrainian students

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, each Ukrainian student at McMaster is filled to the brim with emotion, yet the pain they experience is not theirs alone, but that of an entire community that stretches within and far beyond the walls of McMaster. Having continuously been exposed to a string of disheartening news and images of their homeland ravaged, it is no surprise that these students are finding it difficult to focus on their academic obligations.  

Aleksa Gobosz is a third-year honours biology student and Larisa Hemon is a third-year honours life sciences student. Alongside participating in Ukrainian cultural activities for over 10 years and representing Ukrainian interests nationally, the two vice-presidents of fundraising for the McMaster Ukrainian Student Association are tirelessly dedicating themselves to the Ukrainian cause at great personal cost.  

“We are a patriotic country and people. Not only are we a part of MUSA, but we do Ukrainian dance, Ukrainian Saturday school, we play national instruments [and] we actively participate in the Ukrainian church. People may think that because we are Ukrainians, we are bringing this issue to the forefront now. However, that is not true at all. We are deeply invested in our culture and always have been. It is integrated into every facet of our lives,” said Gobosz.  

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Despite the countless years students like Gobosz and Hemon have dedicated to their cultural communities, they face assumptions that as Ukrainian-Canadians who were born in Canada, the war bears negligible impact on their personal lives. McMaster is a multicultural environment with a sizable portion of its student body comprised of the children of immigrants. However, the impact of unique cultural positionalities and their subsequent impacts during crisis on individuals’ lives are not taken into consideration.  

“[P]eople think [because] it’s a war thousands of kilometers away, it is not affecting us. That is far from true as it is affecting us daily. We speak Ukrainian at home, we are part of Ukrainian organizations, we are part of Ukrainian dance groups and have many Ukrainian friends. Our families are Ukrainian. This war is the only thing being spoken about in our communities,” explained Hemon.  

“[P]eople think [because] it’s a war thousands of kilometers away, it is not affecting us. That is far from true as it is affecting us daily. We speak Ukrainian at home, we are part of Ukrainian organizations, we are part of Ukrainian dance groups and have many Ukrainian friends. Our families are Ukrainian. This war is the only thing being spoken about in our communities.”

Larisa Hemon, vice-president of fundraising for the McMaster Ukrainian Student Association

Amidst the turmoil that war brings, Ukrainian students are further burdened with knowing that their family and friends are caught in the crossfire with no way out. Hemon and Gobosz shared that many Ukrainian students are in constant communication with their loved ones in Ukraine during and in between classes and throughout much of their day-to-day life.   

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Many professors of different courses at McMaster have taken the time to post messages with resources for students to access. However, Hemon and Gobosz expressed that leniency from professors and departments affording Ukrainian students with academic accommodations would serve to be a major step towards alleviating much of the mental health decline of Ukrainian students during this time.  

“To make the process of attaining academic accommodations less stressful, it would be nice if more profs were able to put out messages acknowledging they understand what a challenging time this is for our community and to make it clearer that accommodation is a possibility. Leniency with deadlines, some extra time for tests and such things are all we are asking for to be able to support our mental health at least in terms of school as we get through this crisis,” explained Gobosz.  

While communication is possible through countless different apps, so is exposure to devastation. MUSA members struggled with the aftermath of the longer times spent on social media raising awareness and passing on information about donations and support for relevant organizations. Many MUSA members and Ukrainian students tried to take breaks from going on social media to avoid the continuous flooding of disheartening news. With MUSA’s page and Ukrainian students’ pages having hundreds of other Ukrainian mutuals and friends, all stories, posts and content being shared in these spheres have to do with the conflict and its effects.  

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“The average person on campus might only see one or two Ukraine posts here and there but for me it is over 100 stories just about Ukraine. I’ll sit there for three hours scrolling and crying because I can’t turn away from the pain they are feeling. I try to avoid going on social media, but that’s the only place where resources from McMaster are coming from at all about how they can help. That’s why posters and QR codes across campus would be so helpful to give attention to those resources in other ways,” explained Hemon. 

Moreover, seeking appropriate mental health support through services such as the Student Wellness Centre or the Student Assistant Plan has been a barrier in and of itself. Despite recently dedicating over $800,000 in funding for displaced students, McMaster does not have culturally sensitive crisis management plans in place that are equipped to deal with the unique mental health struggles that arise for students due to ever-evolving global circumstances.  

“It’s hard for us to approach the SWC because it’s somebody who is sitting there and telling us ‘it is going to be okay.’ They would just tell us to find distractions. My friends are my distractions. But who are my friends? My friends are Ukrainians who are also struggling. We are all in this bubble of just worrying and that’s the whole barrier,” said Gobosz. 

“It’s hard for us to approach the SWC because it’s somebody who is sitting there and telling us ‘it is going to be okay.’ They would just tell us to find distractions. My friends are my distractions. But who are my friends? My friends are Ukrainians who are also struggling. We are all in this bubble of just worrying and that’s the whole barrier.” 

Aleksa Gobosz, vice-president of fundraising for the McMaster Ukrainian Student Association

It is evident that beyond help with direct individual arrangements such as academic accommodations, Ukrainian students are asking for mental health supports so they can better support their families, community and country. The individual mental health of Ukrainian students is fundamentally tied to that of their communities and cannot be addressed until action is taken to a greater extent to provide systemic aid to the existing Ukrainian student body.  

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“Right now, the best way to help our mental state is letting us know that action is actively being taken to support Ukraine and the needs of Ukrainian students. We ourselves will feel better eventually, but we simply cannot sit still right now while Ukraine is hurting. Every part of our life is directly hurting as a result. No matter your background, we ask for the solidarity of other communities with Ukraine and we ask for you to pray for us and stay informed,” said Gobosz and Hemon.  

C/O Yoohyun Park

The McMaster Ukrainian Students' Association tells us how we can support their community during this time 

In the few weeks since Russia’s initial attack on Ukraine, citizens have been devastated by the effects of war. It’s not only affecting the more than two million forced to flee their home, but also Ukrainian people around the world who worry for their country and families. 

As the number of involved countries rises, including the latest addition of the famously neutral Switzerland joining on Feb. 28 when it declared it would be freezing all its Russian assets, Ukraine remains under attack from the Russian military. 

From Mar. 7 to 9, the Ukrainian Students’ Association held a booth educating students on how McMaster can show support for Ukraine during these times. Along with their in-person outreach, MUSA has also been posting education information online. Jessica Aranyush, a MUSA member and Laryssa Pichocki, the vice-president social for MUSA, helped to collect signatures and provide resources at the booth. 

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The main focus of their work was getting students to sign and send letters to members of parliament and members of provincial parliament, calling for both military and humanitarian assistance, encouraging them to attend information sessions and donating to the cause.  

“If you are able to donate, donations are great. We've been told monetary [support] is more important right now, just due to there being lots of fights, but even [if you’re not able to donate] just reaching out to any Ukrainian students you know . . . And then don't always ask students about explaining the whole war to [you] because you know, a lot’s going on. Do your own research,”

Laryssa Pichocki

Pichocki mentioned that it’s also possible to show support at rallies that have been happening around Canada and that MUSA has been posting the dates. The latest student support night at the Ukrainian Canadian Congress in Hamilton was on Mar. 7. 

“I think [the student support night] was really good for solidarity and just support in general. Even the young people and older people that attended said it was really good to have that solidarity,” said Aranyush. 

While the Ukrainian students find support in each other and the Hamilton Ukrainian Community, it is still difficult to go through school or work knowing what is happening half a world away. 

“I think anyone who's been affected by war in general, not just Ukrainians, I think your life kind of shifts all of a sudden . . . [For] me directly, my grandparents are still there. Literally everyone except my parents. So, it's like now I wake up and school’s put on the backburner and instead of that I'm kind of waking up to the news every day,” said Aranyush. 

News coming out of Ukraine has also highlighted how Black immigrants and Ukrainians of colour are having more difficulty leaving Ukraine and are facing mistreatment when they are able to leave. The MUSA shared an educational post in support of Black Ukrainians along with resources for Black, Brown and Slavic Ukrainians.  

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The most recent rally shared by MUSA took place on Saturday, Mar. 12. To show support right now, you can educate yourself on the evolving situation through reliable, unbiased news sources and keep up to date on new ways to support the McMaster Ukrainian community by following MUSA online. 

Sophia Topper
The Silhouette

On June 30, a torrent of hatred was unleashed onto LGBTQ+ Russians. Vladimir Putin signed a new bill into law that criminalizes the propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors. This bill, voted 436 in favour, zero against, leaves the definition of ‘propaganda’ vague, police officers stretch this to include any information accepting non-hetero sexualities, or even holding hands with a same-sex partner. 

This comes 20 years post-decriminalization, but two-thirds of Russians still believe that homosexuality is an unacceptable aberration. Worse than just the fines levied against those promoting ‘relations not conductive to procreation,’ as they are euphemistically described, is the escalation of anti-gay violence.

Prior to the vote, a kiss in was held in protest. Neo-Nazis hurled eggs at the couples while singing orthodox songs and chanting, “Moscow is not Sodom.” The situation became violent and LGBTQ+ protesters were savagely beaten, and the police, there to monitor the situation, arrested the protestors rather than the attackers.

The police and government blame the LGBTQ+ protesters for the violence, and insist that this law is to protect them. Officials say that ‘gays incite hatred upon themselves’ and need to be protected from their own extremism. These laws extend even to gay and ‘pro-gay’ foreigners, and domestic ‘suspect gays,’ who dare support those suffering in these horrific conditions.

This anti-gay rhetoric is defended by Putin, who claims that “no infringement on sexual minority’s rights” exists. He also says that these measures are necessary to protect youth, Russia’s birth rate and the orthodoxy. More importantly, Putin is doing his best to align himself with conservatives and the Orthodox Church by scapegoating Russia’s gay population.

The rate of approval of homosexuality among Russians is nearly equal to those in America three decades ago, but acceptance of homosexuality has actually declined since 2007, contrary to other nations where gay people are beginning to enjoy the equal rights they deserve. Russians are without gay public figures: there are no out politicians or celebrities and Russia’s Cultural Minister is even attempting to rewrite history and straighten out Tchaikovsky.

If you’re looking to support Russians under attack, make sure that your actions are not a waste of energy. The proposed Vodka boycott is slacktivism at its prime. Keep enjoying your Smirnoff and Stoli—both are no longer produced or owned in Russia. Besides, these boycotts are interpreted as attacks, justifying the Russia xenophobia.

If you’d really like to make a change, do something in support of the LGTBQ+ folk here in Canada, where you can effect change much more efficiently. You can also sign online petitions that pressure the government into condemning the 76 countries that go farther than Russia into outright criminalization. Donating to Russian LGTBQ+ organizations is the most tangible way of supporting their cause, and allows them to pay any fines levied against them.

Above all, the issue of homophobia needs to be tied into problems that are considered more pressing to the Russian majority. Due to the widespread public support for these laws, Putin is able to use them to bolster his role as Papa Putin, protector of Russia’s traditional values. However, if we are able to link this discrimination to issues that are already loathed by majority, like the ubiquitous corruption, we might be able to change attitudes surrounding not only this law, but human rights as a whole.  

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