A crowd of University of Maryland community members gathered at the McKeldin Mall sundial Thursday evening, dawning Ukraine flags and traditional Ukrainian woven shirts to reflect and mourn near the one year anniversary of the Russian invasion in the nation.
Some students spoke about their experiences having family members back in Ukraine with tears in their eyes. Others asserted a sense of pride for how the country has persevered to fend off Russian offensive campaigns in recent months. As the nation’s flags and candles spelling “Ukraine” were scattered around the vigil area, dozens joined the candlelight vigil hosted by the Ukrainian Student Association.
Ukrainian student Faina Pensy said the last year has made her feel more Ukrainian than ever before.
“I also remember this past year as a year of such immense pride,” the sophomore communication and government and politics major said. “I’m here for a mother who can’t go home, a grandmother who never will, and for my 85 year old aunt.”
Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, there have been thousands of casualties and more than 7 million Ukrainian refugees have fled into Europe. The invasion sparked the largest European refugee crisis since World War II.
Tetiana Tytko, the president of the Ukrainian Student Association, shared during the vigil that her life changed when the Russian invasion began last year.
“My life stopped for maybe a month, I couldn’t wrap my head around what happened,” Tytko said. “I couldn’t believe that there was war in Ukraine.”
Tytko lived in Ukraine until 2018, when she moved to the United States for her masters and doctoral programs. Her family and friends have all stayed in Ukraine as the war has played out over the last year.
While she began processing the war’s reality, Tytko found strength in the community at this university. She started the Ukrainian Student Association days after the invasion began. Tytko was worried the citizens of Ukraine would be met with the same response from the international community they received when Russia annexed the nation’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 — words and no action.
Boris Lushniak, the dean of this university’s public health school and an American-born Ukrainian, delivered an impassioned speech during Thursday’s vigil where he highlighted how his outlook on the war has changed dramatically in the past year.
“I thought Ukraine was doomed … I doubted my own people,” Lushniak said. “I’m very proud of Ukraine for having withstood a year’s worth of this terrible onslaught”.
At the beginning of the invasion, people around the world feared the Russian attack could mean the end of Ukrainian sovereignty. The country has fended off Russian advancement and held major territory in its defensive efforts, including the nation’s capital city of Kyiv. The nation’s ability to hold its ground, despite being outnumbered by Russia’s troops and advanced military, has united Ukrainians around the world in support of the nation’s continuing fight.
Lushniak wore a vyshyvanka — or traditional Ukrainian woven shirt — to the vigil. His mother crafted the shirt 75 years ago from bed sheets in a displaced persons camp in Germany. The item was given to his father when he protested the Soviet Union in Washington, D.C. in the 1970’s and was passed down to Lushniak after his father’s death.
“The shirt is back again in the streets of Washington protesting once again, after all those years with peace” Lushniak said. “That’s the travesty here, that’s why we’re here, that’s why we’re gathered”.
International Ukrainian student Maria Bysmemma-Ozerova began her studies at this university last semester after transferring from another university where there weren’t as many support systems for Ukrainian students, such as student associations.
“I really needed some company and I wanted to find some like people, Ukrainians,” Bysmemma-Ozerova said. “I saw [the Ukrainian Student Association] at the first look when I was running around looking for this organization, and I’m so happy”.
The Ukrainian Student Association’s events have included fundraising for Ukrainian ambulances, participating in the Summit for Ukraine in the U.S. Capitol building, and attending many protests in front of the White House. As the war approaches its second year, community members at this university will continue rallying around one another to remember and elevate their heritage and raise awareness about the invasion.
At the conclusion of the vigil, Lushniak taught the crowd how to say “Glory to Ukraine, Glory to the heroes, to victory” in Ukrainian.
“The war is not over,” Tytko said. “Nobody knows where Russia will go next”.