A version of this article was originally published in The Black & White, the student newspaper of Walt Whitman High School, in Bethesda, Maryland.
“We’ll not spare either our souls or bodies to get freedom,” read the lyrics of the Ukrainian national anthem. I recited that line countless times in allegiance to my country. But on Feb. 24, when Russian troops invaded Ukraine, the phrase lept from the page to real life, taking on a new, deeper meaning for me. Now, instead of a figure of speech drawn from the centuries of painful history, I see everyday people sacrificing their lives so that I can live in a free and safe country.
At first, countries around the world pitched in to support Ukraine. That support began deteriorating when “more interesting” stories (like the Johnny Depp- and Amber Heard trial) became front-page news. Since the start of the war, social media interactions with the topic of war in Ukraine decreased from 109 million down to 4.8 million — that’s a 22-fold drop. Even if your social media feeds aren’t flooded with pictures from Ukraine, or your favorite news sources have stopped reporting on the war, I am here to remind you that the war is still raging.
Each morning, I wake up to news about familiar places being destroyed. There was the missile strike that hit not far from my school in Ukraine (with which I continued double-enrollment), where only recently rooms were still filled with my classmates’ chatter, as they prepared for final exams. My school held its graduation over Zoom with almost all students displaced from their homes — part of the seven million others who fled the country, and up to eight million more internally displaced. The Russian military keeps destroying civilian infrastructure, and the Ukrainian government estimates up to $105 billion worth of damages, plus thousands killed, including children.
About a week before the invasion, I wrote a piece for my school newspaper, saying that even under threat of war, Ukrainians will stay unified. Since writing that article, my world forever changed as I watched my country fight not only for its own survival, but for peace across Europe. I keep returning to the night of Feb. 24, when I got the life-altering text: “The war is here.” Since then, so much has changed, but one thing remains the same: Ukrainians are united and strong, even after seeing the hideous crimes committed in our homes and hearts––and even as the attention in the West wanes.
While physically safe in the US, my heart aches at all times. The pain has become a default setting for my mood; I feel chronically devastated. At the same time, I’ve seen overwhelming support from foreign governments and regular people for my country. In particular, many Americans have resonated with the symbolism and value of the freedom Ukraine is fighting for today.
As I methodically read through official government channels to get credible information, my jumble of emotions has turned into pride. The Ukrainian Armed Forces fight off the Russian army. My family friends are enlisting in the Army. Clear and consistent public communication from President Zelenskyy and top-level generals washes away the panic.
The emotional distance, developing in some people outside of Ukraine, from the outrageous war crimes ongoing within its borders is extremely damaging. As people become less invested in Ukraine’s victory, the pressure on governments to implement sanctions on Russia and support Ukraine decreases. And this is not a local conflict! Putin hasn’t just attacked the largest country in Europe, but the entire world order and democracy. Each person and government must support Ukraine to the fullest extent because at this moment, we are the gatekeepers of humanity, democracy, and freedom for the whole world.
At the core of our resistance is the ultimate value within each Ukrainian: freedom. In her book, The Value Compass, Dr. Mandeep Rai named freedom as the essential Ukrainian value, saying that my country is the only nation where this value prevails over any other. For centuries, Ukrainians have been fighting for our language, culture, territory, and lives. As Rai writes, Ukrainians have successfully turned the value of freedom into a national mission.
Most young Ukrainians, myself included, share this value. We are unstoppable and resilient. Despite the ongoing war, most students successfully transitioned to virtual learning and persevered through drastic disruptions to their education. A group of Ukrainian organizers in partnership with the government founded Ukrainian Global University to provide access to high-quality international education for Ukrainian students to ensure opportunities to rebuild the country after the war. Similarly, many of my conversations with Ukrainian friends revolve around our overwhelming motivation to channel knowledge and skills towards the reconstruction of Ukraine. Many young Ukranians have begun grassroots organizing efforts to help displaced people, put together lists of resources for people who want to donate, and organized protests on college campuses. Some have even enlisted in the army to protect our country. If anything, Putin has formed a new life mission for the rising generation of Ukrainians, and that is to destroy his regime and fight every authoritarian regime that dares to follow.
As young people, we must understand that this is the world where we will live for many decades to come, and it is our responsibility to unite and fight against dictatorial madmen. As the interest in Ukraine decreases on social media, young people worldwide should utilize our unique proclivity towards grassroots and social media organizing to continue sharing Ukrainian stories and putting pressure on the government. It’s up to you and me, right now, to serve as ambassadors for democracy and freedom.