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Ukrainian-born Marymount student braves war zone to help family escape

The interfaith prayer vigil for Ukraine at Marymount University (courtesy photo)

(Updated at 9:35 a.m. 03/23/21) Most college seniors spend spring break tossing back cocktails somewhere warm and inviting — a last hoorah before graduation.

But one Marymount University student did pretty much the exact opposite. He traveled to his birth country of Ukraine, which Russia invaded nearly four weeks ago, to help some of his family members flee their homes and resettle in Poland.

A.C. — who asked the college to abbreviate his name fearing his safety and that of his family — has family members living in the capital, Kyiv, and Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city. The war has caused a massive refugee crisis, and 10 million people have fled their homes in Ukraine, either for more remote parts of the country or for neighboring countries, chiefly Poland.

“It’s a lot worse of a situation than even what’s being shown on TV. When I was in Lviv, every five to 10 minutes the sirens would go off, warning anyone and everyone to find shelter or evacuate,” A.C. said in an interview with his school. “Near the edge of Lviv, I saw several bodies just laying outside buildings because there aren’t really any spots right now to bury victims. It was all very nerve-wracking.”

Some of his family resettled in Warsaw, Poland’s capital, but others told him they plan to stay in Kyiv — along with an estimated two million others sticking it out, either because they do not have a place to go or the means to get there, or in defiance of Russia.

“I pleaded with them, begged them to leave… told them, ‘you will die if you stay here.’ While I admire their patriotism for Ukraine, it’s inevitable what will happen and I would rather them be alive than sacrifice their lives,” A.C. said. “They’re attacking churches, hospitals, apartment complexes. They’re just openly targeting civilians because of their nationality — it is genocide, and there’s no other way to describe it.”

The Marymount senior predicts that if he is not thwarted, Russian president Vladimir Putin will target neighboring countries, a concern shared in particular by many Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians — all of which were formerly under the control of the Soviet Union.

A.C. left Ukraine at six years old and has since become an American citizen, but he stays in touch with his roots through the Ukrainian embassy in D.C. and nearby Ukrainian churches, which offer volunteer opportunities, language classes and festivals.

Now, he’s tapping into his patriotism in a different way. He has attended protests outside the Russian embassy as well as at Lafayette Square, joining other demonstrators calling on the U.S. government to hold Russia accountable. He is also raising awareness for Ukraine on his campus.

During a recent interfaith prayer vigil for peace, he delivered a poem he wrote entitled “My Ukraine.” In it, he contrasts the country’s war-torn history and present-day circumstances with depictions of it as “a land of innocence and prosperity… filled with fields of sunflowers glistening… with magnificent churches and cathedrals.”

“I stand by my nation of Ukraine,” A.C. told Marymount.

Addressing his birth country and its people, he said, “I love you. Fight for our land. This is our land. This is our home. Slava Ukraini.”

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