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Ukrainian students open up about the crisis in their home country

Ivan Prokopenko moved to Long Beach just one month before Russian forces launched a full-scale invasion of his home country.

Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an invasion of Ukraine on Thursday, Feb. 24. For Long Beach State international students Ivan Prokopenko and Aigiun Guseinova, the news was shocking, but not surprising.

“I remember that night very, very, very clearly,” said Prokopenko. “It was 8 p.m. I was about to start preparing for my ethics exam. My mom just texted me saying ‘Son, the war has started.’”

Prokopenko thought his mother was exaggerating until he turned on the news and saw explosions over his home city.

“It just shattered everything, all my beliefs, in world peace and stability,” Prokopenko said. “Everything that we, as humanity, tried to build for so long was just shattered because one country attacked another without any reason.”

Prokopenko remembered he was shaking and nervous as he watched the explosions on the news, having to take an exam the following day.

“Deadlines don’t care,” he said.

Prokopenko first came to Long Beach as a student in August 2019, where he stayed for nearly two semesters.

“It was great. I was hanging with my friends, sleeping in my bed, eating my mother’s food,” Prokopenko said.

His time on campus was cut short due to COVID-19 restrictions and had to return home to Kyiv, Ukraine.

While he originally came to CSULB to study filmmaking, Prokopenko quickly discovered that it was difficult to be a film major because his classes were held on Zoom in a different time zone.

Prokopenko switched his major to study business management since he also held an interest in the production side of filmmaking.

A few weeks after Prokopenko returned to campus for the start of this spring semester his home country was invaded.

Prokopenko said that since the invasion began, he found it difficult to study and even harder to sleep. What once used to take him 40 minutes to read a homework assignment now takes him nearly two hours.

“I go to bed, and I don’t want to wake up,” he said. “My city might be bombed or my friends might not respond to me, which is even scarier.”

Prokopenko used studying for his six classes as a distraction. He said his professors have been accommodating, allowing Prokopenko to schedule his exams earlier or later to space them out.

Aigiun Guseinova is an international graduate student studying information systems. Since her hometown in Eastern Ukraine was invaded, she has also struggled with her role as a student.

“I’m already not here,” Guseinova said. “It takes a lot of effort to study and to go to work.”

For Guseinova, the war began in 2014 when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, Ukraine’s neighboring country. When she was younger, Guseinova’s family moved out of Eastern Ukraine to a country near Turkey to avoid the conflict.

“I can’t really talk about it,” said Guseinova, tearing up. “I cannot even think about it. My childhood has the best memories. But these kids will not have that childhood because what they will remember will just be this war.”

Guseinova met Prokopenko when Jeet Joshee, the administrative dean for international education, connected the two students to form a group. Prokopenko and Guseinova text occasionally to check in with each other.

“I need to talk with someone who will understand,” Guseinova said. “We are in a different country and we only know each other.”

When they do meet, they eat together and discuss ways to get involved to support Ukraine, along with CSULB lecturer Yulia Gasio, who grew up in eastern Ukraine.

“I can’t imagine what the huge pressure it is to be a foreign student with paperwork and your status in school,” Gasio said. “And to have a war on top of that, that must be really overwhelming.”

CSULB officials had reached out to Gasio and asked her to connect with Prokopenko and Guseinova. The professor grew up in conflict-ridden eastern Ukraine and was less surprised to hear that Russia had invaded the country.

“I’m in a different position compared to Ivan and Aigiun because they were from an area where they didn’t know violence for eight years,” Gasio said. “I think they are in a deeper state of shock than me. For me, I’m kind of numb by now.”

Guseinova and Prokopenko plan on organizing fundraisers and events to show support for Ukrainian civilians who have been affected by the war. They are working with Associated Students Inc. to receive funding for informational events.

Prokopenko said the best way students can get involved is by donating to the Red Cross Ukrainian Crisis Fund and continue speaking about the crisis with others.

“Just talk to your neighbors, talk to everyone,” Prokopenko said. “Maybe if you can’t be able to donate, you can raise awareness. Talk to someone because they have more possibilities.”

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