The Ukraine war: A community in crisis means students are in crisis
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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 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.
“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.