For most Utahns, the Russian attack on Ukraine on the morning of Feb. 24 was a shocking headline. But for the 1,500 Ukrainians living in Utah, it was a horrifying threat to the sovereignty of their homeland and the safety of their loved ones.
One such Ukrainian was UVU student Lina Varionova, whose family was in Kyiv during the first explosion. She described the feeling of panic that overcame her when she first received the news.
“I was trying to call everyone because there was no information,” she said. “I was scared because I didn’t know if they bombed my city.”
Varionova said at first she thought the news of the invasion was fake. But when she called her family, they confirmed there was bombing outside their window. She could hear it through the phone.
After several sleepless nights riddled with worry, Varionova and her friends began to take action.
“You get yourself together after a few days, and then you’re trying to do whatever you can to help them,” she said.
One of the ways she helped was by working with Students for the Prevention of Climate Change at UVU. Varionova helped connect the club to other Ukrainians, allowing them to set up a fund called Relief for Ukraine.
Together they put bins on UVU campus to collect donations. The club’s Instagram page specifies what people can bring: “non-perishable foods, hygiene products, first aid materials, bedding, candles, clothing and money to help cover costs of shipping those items.”
Ivan Bagmett is a Ukrainian working in Utah who is trying to provide relief for Ukraine. Bagmett left Ukraine in 2014, when it became a dangerous place for him and his young family to live. Bagmett also faced persecution for supporting his country.
He described the night that marked the last straw.
“Some people came to us at nighttime, and they were trying to break our doors,” he said. “At the time, my little one was five months old.”
The next day, Bagmett and his wife took their two children and fled to Utah, which they “have never regretted.” Nevertheless, they did not leave their love and support for their country behind.
Bagmett’s parents, his wife’s parents and his siblings are still in Ukraine, causing him great anxiety given the recent attacks. He has been working with the Utah Ukrainian Association to provide aid to refugees, lobby with government officials and spread awareness.
According to Bagmett, the Utah Ukrainian Association has direct contact with a representative of the Ukrainian government, who tells them their most urgent needs. A list of requested provisions can be found on the homepage of their website.
The Utah Ukrainian Association has also hosted rallies at the Utah State Capitol Building to remind Utah citizens and politicians that Ukraine needs assistance.
“We’re trying to gather some signatures so our lawmakers can be aware,” Bagmett said. “We ask them to close the sky, and we ask them to accept some portion of refugees because Europe is just overwhelmed with all those people.”
Both Varionova and the Utah Ukrainian Association mentioned the Budapest Memorandum, in which Ukraine agreed to give up their nuclear weapons in exchange for respect for their sovereignty from Russia, the U.S. and the UK. Russia has breached this agreement, and some argue that the U.S. must provide more support to uphold their end.
Varionova admits it’s difficult not to feel helpless in times like these.
“Sometimes I myself feel like there’s not much I can do because I’m so far away from home, and sometimes it doesn’t feel real when you don’t actually experience it or you don’t have family there,” she said. “But there’s always something to be done.”
BYU student Dustin Russ has no personal connection to Ukraine, yet he went so far as to buy a plane ticket to Poland, where he planned to cross the border and fight with the Ukrainian Foreign Legion.
Because his parents were concerned, however, Russ ended up not flying to Poland. He instead dropped a class and now spends the time he would have been in that class standing in Brigham Square with a Ukrainian flag draped across his shoulders, holding a poster with a QR code linked to a GoFundMe for Ukraine.
“I wanted to come out on campus and show people that someone cares about this, and you should too,” Russ said.
Russ estimates close to 2,500 people have scanned the QR code. He has also become a source of information and updates for people who walk by with questions.
When asked why he was inspired to promote this cause specifically as opposed to other humanitarian crises, Russ talked about the uncontroversial nature of support for Ukraine.
“I feel like if I come out here and I start advocating for every political issue on the planet, not everyone is going to agree with me,” he said. “But this is an issue that everyone can stand behind because this speaks to the American principle of freedom and democracy that we’re taught from our childhoods.”
Utahns have also been supporting Ukraine by donating to Lifting Hands International, a Utah-based nonprofit that has been assisting refugees since 2016. Lifting Hands International has been grateful to see the efforts of volunteers, as many people have gotten groups together to assemble kits and organize drives and fundraisers.
According to their chief operations officer Walker Frahm, donating money helps Ukrainians more quickly than donating supplies. Recently, monetary donations have funded buses to evacuate people from Odessa, grants to NGOs located in affected areas and a large solar charging unit.
“When people arrive in Moldova, there’s no WiFi, it’s several hours from the nearest city and they’ve only been thinking about fleeing for their lives,” Frahm said. “So we are currently shipping from Germany a massive solar charging unit that will have satellite WiFi and the capacity to charge hundreds of phones at a time to be at the border.”
When volunteers donate supplies, they take approximately two months to reach the recipient. However, Frahm assures they are still necessary.
“It’s a very predictable pattern that there’s a huge outpouring of support initially, but that support tapers off,” he said. “So if the aid that we’re collecting right now gets there in a month or two, it actually might be good timing.”
Varionova also talked about how humanitarian donation often becomes a “trend” when crises begin, but then the trend dies down even while the conflict persists. To avoid becoming disconnected from the conflict, she encourages her fellow Utahns to put themselves in the shoes of those who are forced to leave their homes.
Frahm echoed this message of empathy:
“We’re trying to remember that even if gas is a little more expensive or things are a little bit harder for us, we’re talking regularly with Ukrainians who, at a moment’s notice, had to leave everything they own and to leave loved ones and family members to flee to safety,” he said.