Illustration by Danie Laminta

Letter from a Seemingly Unaffected Ukrainian: part II

This letter is a story of great despair and of the even greater love that came out of it. It is the story of this campus, a story of love I will remember years later. When I think of NYUAD, this is the story I want to tell.

Mar 15, 2023

I have been told I have a way with words, but I’m not one to usually use them. Not about one of the most intimate, tragic and painful experiences of my life. On the shared trauma of millions of people and on the biggest war in Europe since WW2, started last year by Russia. The reason I’m not the one to speak is because I feel like a speck of dust in a dune of over 40 million Ukrainians, most of whom are affected more strongly and more painfully than me, and therefore should be the ones speaking.
But today, as I re-read an article I had written almost a year ago, and published days before the war, I felt the need to use my privilege and my words again. While those wonderful, strong, brave people are fighting, recovering from loss or saving other Ukrainians, I can use my words to update this community on what has happened since I wrote that article. To remind you about what I asked of you a year ago, and to show you how much you have done for Ukraine already.
Most importantly, I want to tell you a story about love.
When the war erupted on Feb. 24, 2022, I woke up to my mom’s messages of bombings and to news that we are at war. A year later, on Feb. 24 2023, many Ukrainians reflected on how the first day of war went for them, but I did not share. Frankly, I do not remember most of that day at all. I remember the idiotic feeling of being off campus and having to explain to a random person next to me that a war started in my country, and them hugging me deeply confused. I remember returning to campus and my friend coming to give me a hug the moment she heard about it. And me sitting under the palms in the sun, amidst the quiet, completely shocked.
And I remember how after the start of the war the world stopped in NYU Abu Dhabi for at least 10 days for every Ukrainian student. How we didn’t eat or sleep at all during the first nights, because we were all afraid that our loved ones would die while we were sleeping. How we barricaded ourselves in one of the dorm rooms as a group and didn’t leave or see anyone except each other, and only called our loved ones back in Ukraine and cried. I remember us hugging each other, braiding hair, singing songs, constantly checking probably 20 news channels and obsessing over every little detail. We forgot to eat, or felt like throwing up most of the time, and that month I returned to the weight I last had at 14 years old.
I remember how after a few first days of the war something collapsed in my body from stress, and I was taken to ER by worried friends for having different sized pupils — one of the signs of a stroke or brain damage. By four a.m. after some brain scans, I was told that one of the nerves in my eye just died and will not regulate my pupil size anymore, it will stay like this forever. Now the reminder of this war stares back at me in the mirror every time I fix my make up, wash my face, check my clothes for wrinkles. I’m reminded of those terrible last days of February every time I see myself in the mirror.
Our friends from all around the world came to that room to support us — mostly those close enough to even find out where we were. Every day, people brought us food, water, coffee and even sedatives, and some stayed to ask for updates from home or just sit next to us in solidarity. And after some time, as we slowly started coming back to life, there was a vigil for Ukraine, one of the most transformative experiences I have had at NYUAD, where Ukrainians cried on stage reading letters from alumni and current students, and received such a necessary space to voice our grievances and ask for support.
I did not think of it back then, but looking back, I realize the reaction of our community was the reason that I enrolled into NYUAD four years prior. That senior spring fully transformed me, and even though my four years at NYUAD were wonderful and filled with happy carefree student moments full of travel, NYUAD confessions gossip, drama between friend groups and exes, I realized later that none of those experiences even remotely compared to the power with which our community uplifted me during the war.
In Ukraine, the saying goes that a true friend is found amidst despair. And damn, Ukrainian proverbs hold their power. You can not weed out some bad apples — professors asking Ukrainian first years to make “presentations on the war” for credit, or making jokes about the war in class. Or a first year from NYUNY writing to my NYU mailbox several times asking for comments about the war for her journalism class assignment, and urging me to respond as the deadline for submission was at “5 pm that Friday”. I am still astounded by the ethics standards of the journalism department of NYU NY, whose professor urged their class to seek out affected students from the community to comment on the tragedy the first week of war, and intellectualize on it. Or some of my closest friends from abroad who completely disappeared during the war, others outright telling me that I deserve less checking in since I am “not in Ukraine” — if you are reading this, that one really hurt.
Some of my grades absolutely plummeted that semester, tanking my GPA. But my GPA truly was the last thing I cared about. I couldn’t concentrate once back in class, couldn’t stay in the room for a full hour without going to check the news in the restroom. Sometimes I said absolute nonsense during class discussions, and other students understandably and humbly pretended to not have heard.
Outside the classroom, life slowly started to continue — someone’s family was in the army, money was being raised for civilians leaving cities or the elderly were stranded in cities by themselves, pregnant women, wounded et cetera. A little fundraiser that started on instagram days prior to the war ended up getting over 40,000 USD distributed to support people in Ukraine from Feb. 24 to around March 24th of 2022. In the first 24 hours of war the biggest Ukrainian foundation “Come Back Alive” received more donations than in the whole previous year, specifically 700,000 USD, and a whopping 1/700th of all that money was from donations sent to me. We are a country of over 40 million people, and those 40 million people were loved by this university that much.
When I think of NYUAD, this is the story I want to tell. This is the story of this campus, a story of love I will remember years later. I will remember the texts from a pregnant woman giving birth to a boy because she managed to escape to safety because of donations. I will remember her crying and thanking each and every one of you. I will remember people I barely knew back then who donated thousands of dollars to NYU families to keep them safe. I will remember an internally displaced mother who cried receiving just over 150 USD of donations because she ran away with nothing and had no money to feed her three children, and that 150 USD could sustain them for at least a week. I will remember Latvians, South Africans, Syrians, Americans, Danes hearing me cry and showing me the purest type of compassion I have ever seen humans express between each other in my life.
The article I wrote just before the war is a time capsule, where, amidst uncertainty, I wondered a lot, and a year later I can finally answer some of my own questions. I am physically safe - although that came at a cost of not having been home for over a year. My family still lives at home in Kyiv, and Kyiv is still Ukrainian.
After the war started, my mom left the country for the second time in her life, knowing no international languages, and lived as a refugee in Slovakia for four months with strangers who she communicated with via Google Translate. Exhausted from missing her land and having no place of her own, she gave up and chose to return to Kyiv while the bombs still routinely ruined residential buildings in the city every week. I was not excited by that decision, but I respected her right to return to the land that belongs to her, and to all of us. My family experienced power outages, my mom disappeared for two days once after one of the bombings, and I had to ask relatives to call her to find out if she was alive. I stepped out of my workplace multiple times to just call and hear crying and “I’m alive” over the phone on other days, when the mobile network wasn’t down. Just this morning I woke up from multiple messages about missile hits and my mom saying, “I have been hiding in the corridor since 5 am, they’ve been bombing through the night”. These messages come almost daily from a 60+ year old woman, who worked hard her whole life and deserves nothing but restful sleep at 5 am. I supported her financially through the winter and regular power outages, ordered canned foods and dry alcohol to cook with in case electricity, gas or water don't come back for the days they disappeared. But this war taught me how much your origin truly matters, and how much one is willing to fight for it, how much one’s heart yearns to return home regardless of the dangers, because this is where it belongs.
A year ago, I asked all of you to not “be fine”, to not stay complacent with the war, to speak out, to show compassion, to donate, to support. And you flooded multiple hearts with love on some of the darkest days. Every one of you who donated and is reading this should know, you saved thousands of lives when financing food, medicine, hygienic products, bulletproof vests and helmets. You, people abroad, have such a strong power to uplift, support, and love. You should remind yourself of that more often. And use that power to advocate for those in need, to help those in despair, to fight for the justice of those suffering.
A year ago, I quoted Zelensky saying, “We will defend our land no matter what”, and we have been doing just that. Being Ukrainian is the best part of me as a human being, and I do everything in my power to deserve that title It is an honor to be from the same country with civilians who stop Russian tanks with bare hands, pick up and carry mines off the road, who form endless lines outside army and civilian defense enlisting units and who die every day to defend my right to democracy and freedom. But millions of those brave people exist due to people abroad like you, who donate, who lobby their governments, host refugees, translate for them, and volunteer. And we will forever be grateful.
This letter is a story of great despair and of the even greater love that came out of it. And it is a reminder to all of you as a community of why you started supporting us, and why I ask you to continue supporting Ukraine after a year of war. You are enablers of bravery, and you are guardian angels to those fighting for freedom on the ground.
Please, consider donating for Ukraine again, in remembrance of all the people who died for the right to be free, and in fighting for those who can continue to live as free Ukrainians with your support.
With greatest love, admiration, and gratefulness,
Your Ukrainian NYUAD Alumna Anna
Since the start of the war, over 8 million Ukrainians became refugees, over 18 000 civilian casualties recorded, many more unknown. At least 1000 children were killed or injured. Over 10 000 children were kidnapped by Russia from occupied territories, over 171 cases of sexual violence of Russian military against Ukrainain civilians were recorded, Mariupol city was destroyed to the ground, over 1200 civilians died in Bucha and Kyiv during the Russian occupation, at least 5 million of Ukrainians lost jobs.
Anna Pustovoit is a contributing writer. Email her at
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