'It was like my 9/11': Heartbroken Virginia Tech students, faculty from Ukraine keep tabs on family in midst of conflict
Tim Covert was finishing his homework when his roommate texted him. Some cadets needed Covert, who is fluent in Russian and a member of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets, to translate a speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Covert peered at the laptop screen, translating each sentence into English. He struggled with what he was hearing. Putin planned to invade Ukraine, Covert’s home country.
He grabbed his phone. It was 2 a.m. in Ukraine. His grandmother answered.
“You guys have to get out of the city right now,” said Covert, a senior majoring in history and Russian, who also serves in the Marine Corps Reserve.
He heard an explosion in the background as his grandmother explained that the family planned to hide in the basement of their apartment building in Kyiv, Ukraine, the capital city.
Then, he didn’t hear from them.
“It was like my 9/11,” Covert said. “I sobbed and cried for six hours straight. I thought my family had died. I didn’t sleep for three days.”
That was Feb. 24, the day Russia launched its military invasion into Ukraine, with a focus on Kyiv. Since then, hundreds of civilians, including children and those who volunteered for the Ukrainian defense forces, have been killed. Others have fled to different parts of Ukraine or to neighboring countries.
As the conflict continues on the other side of the world from Blacksburg, Virginia Tech students and faculty from Ukraine watch in agony. Many are trying by phone to help their families find safety, either in Ukraine or in neighboring countries.
Covert and his parents spent four days on the phone with his grandparents and cousins in Ukraine, helping them move from village to village at night as they fled Kyiv for Lviv, where his aunt lives. While they were traveling, the family’s Kyiv apartment was destroyed by a cruise missile. His uncles stayed behind to defend the city.
“It’s something that I never saw myself doing,” said Covert, who was born in Kyiv and moved to the United States when he was 5 years old with his parents and brother. Growing up, he continued to visit his family in Ukraine often and went to middle school in Russia.
“Ukraine for me was always a safe space growing up,” he said. “I went from having a family who was totally happy and healthy to overnight becoming wartime refugees.”
Similarly, Iuliia Hoban begged her family to flee Kyiv when the invasion began. Hoban, a native of Kyiv, is assistant director for intercultural learning in the Cranwell International Center at Virginia Tech. She also is program director for Mozaiko, a living-learning community.
As she watched the news unfold on Feb. 24, Hoban frantically called her parents. It was 4 a.m. Ukraine time.
“'You have to leave now,'” Hoban told them. “I could hear the bombs.”
She said her parents initially resisted, then agreed and packed some possessions. They left by car and headed to the western part of Ukraine, where they are living now.
“You need to be forceful in those circumstances,” Hoban said. “When there’s a lack of safety, you need to have someone to say what you’re doing. Time is a rare commodity and one day can slow you down.”
She said her parent’s trek normally would have taken six hours by car. This time, it took 24 hours.
“It’s the most traumatic event I have ever experienced,” Hoban said as she watches the conflict from Virginia. She’s coping by taking in the information day by day, rather than many days at a time.
“If you even try to think about it a little more, you can’t handle it,” she said.
Similarly, Bogdan Ivanytsia, a Virginia Tech sophomore, is struggling to process all that is happening in his home country. He was born and grew up in Kyiv, coming to live in the United States as a Hokie last July.
His entire family, including his parents, three siblings, and grandparents, were able to escape Kyiv, traveling through neighboring Slovakia and reaching Germany, where they are now. He has friends living in bomb shelters in Kyiv or who have joined the defense forces.
“On one side, I am incredibly lucky to have my family safe and out of the country, and I am incredibly lucky to be safe myself,” he said from his campus residence hall in Blacksburg. “But on the other side, I’m pretty sure I completely lost my home. I don’t think I’ll be able to have my childhood pictures. I’m seeing all of these places I grew up — places I celebrated my middle school and high school graduation — being completely destroyed.”
Ivanytsia, who is majoring in geography, has been so distraught that he has not been able to attend classes since the invasion began. He has worked with the Dean of Students Office and directly with Dean of Students Byron Hughes to arrange his workload with professors.
Last week, Hughes published a letter to the Virginia Tech community offering support for Ukrainian and Russian students during “one of the hardest times of their lives.” His message included a list of counseling resources, such as Cook Counseling Center and Hokie Wellness.
Burruss Hall was illuminated with blue and yellow, the colors of Ukraine’s flag, from March 1-4 to show solidarity with Ukrainians.
Additionally, Cranwell International Center at Virginia Tech is one of the sponsors of a March 21 event, Coming Together: Reflection and Learning in the Midst of the War in Ukraine that will encourage the university community to reflect on the conflict and learn about Maslenitsa, a Slavic holiday. The center offers a variety of programs and services for international students, such as helping with immigration issues and promoting development of global and intercultural competence for the Hokie community.
Ivanytsia said he’s grateful for the support from Virginia Tech, especially one of his first-year engineering professors, Diana Bairaktarova, who has checked on him and brought him food. Bairaktarova is an assistant professor in the Department of Engineering Education, an affiliate faculty member in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and a faculty member in Human-Centered Design at Virginia Tech.
Ivanytsia said he is remembering his last times in Kyiv about a year ago, “being happy and jolly with friends, enjoying the city at night.”
“Kyiv is a lovely, lovely town with amazing sunsets, amazing beaches on the river,” he said. “It’s an extremely beautiful and culturally significant place to every Ukrainian. It’s center to all of us.”
Both Covert and Ivanytsia encouraged people not only to support Ukrainians, but Russians, too. Each has friends and family in Russia.
“This war is a tragedy on all fronts,” Covert said.
Coming Together: Reflection and Learning in the Midst of the War in Ukraine is from 7 to 9 p.m. Monday, March 21, in the Graduate Life Center Multipurpose Room.
Cranwell International Center and the Mozaiko Living-Learning Community, in partnership with Cook Counseling Center and the Dean of Students Office, offer you a space for personal reflection regarding the war in Ukraine and an opportunity to reach out to students as well as faculty and staff who will be present to provide support. It will also offer space for learning about Maslenitsa, a Slavic holiday that demonstrates the cultural connections between Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. Traditional food and drink from Ukraine and Russia (tea, pierogies, syrniki, and blini) will be served.