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Young Ukrainians Seeking Normalcy Rethink Their Futures

KYIV, Ukraine – For at least one night, they thought, they would use the basement of the university building as a place to twirl and hop and stomp – dancing to celebrate their Ukrainian heritage. Not as a bomb shelter. They say they have forgotten normal life. Dancing should remind them they are still in their youth.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the country’s young people have been at the forefront of its resistance – and its trauma. Some fled their homes. Some were separated from their families. Others volunteered or deployed to the front line. Many lost relatives, friends or neighbors. The war has forced them to grow up overnight, to change the direction of their lives, to reorder their priorities. The war has derailed their dreams.

Stress or grief are never far away.

The proceeds from the student dance were to support a battalion that was battling Russian forces in the east. 18-year-old Sviatoslav Syrotyuk fought alongside his dad early this year after joining the territorial defense. The experience turned him from a first-year college student majoring in archaeology into a soldier risking his life for Ukraine.

At first the teenager didn’t have “any fear”; since he was a young boy he had learned to handle weapons. He was teaching other recruits how to shoot. But when he went directly to the fight, he got a crash course in war. He saw bullets whiz right past him. He helped evacuate civilians from a front-line town. And he suffered a concussion when an antitank shell exploded next to him.

Valiiev, a law student and close friend, has encountered the war far differently. When it began, his mother asked him to come stay in the small safer village. He said no. He needed to support Ukrainian forces from Kyiv.

He soon lost all contact with his family. And for more than a month, as Valiiev worked at packaging and distributing hundreds of petrol bombs, he feared his mother and brother were dead. When the Russians retreated he learned otherwise. His mother got a call through, and said that the village had been occupied and their home had been looted. But both she and his brother had survived.

Valiiev became extremely emotional when he heard his mother’s voice.

Before the war Valiiev dreamed of a future with a big salary and many material things. Now those things don’t matter. All he dreams of now is to live a normal life.

Ukrainians have suffered collective trauma as well as highly personal trauma.

Daria, who is 16, had looked up to her camp counselor as a mentor since she was a little girl. Whenever she becomes stressed or confused, she hears his voice telling her to step back and think about what she is doing. He would say, “Keep your life in your hands.” Recently Daria learned that her camp counselor was killed while defending Mariupol.

Daria and her sister Maria, who live in Kyiv, had helped cook for the troops there until their mother decided to flee to a safer village in western Ukraine. It was a jarring experience to be abruptly pulled away from their hometown.

Maria later volunteered to help rebuild a dormitory for Ukrainians displaced from the east. For Maria, it was a chance to make something with her hands to help her country.

For some young Ukrainians, resilience remains a day-to-day challenge.

Two sisters – Katya, 27, and Nastya, 15 – endured the Russians’ lengthy occupation of their northeastern city of Izyum. They were trapped at home with their mother, their grandfather, two grandmothers and Katya’s boyfriend. They had no electricity, no gas, no water and no way to communicate with the outside world.

All they could think about was survival. One time, the sisters left the house, only to come under cluster munition shelling. Katya was injured when shrapnel hit her arm and back. She refused to look for medical attention because she was afraid of being sent to Russia. A soldier finally took her to a military clinic in a building that used to be a school, and there the fragments were removed.

After that, the sound of any boom would cause Nastya to panic. When the invasion began, she was in the ninth grade. By the fall of last year she was trying to teach herself the 10th grade subjects so she would not fall behind.

The area was liberated in September, but there was no way to return to normal. The city’s infrastructure had been destroyed, mostly. Undetonated explosives could be seen strewn about the roads and city streets. Many people were still missing. Like the other people in town, Katya and Nastya had great fears that the Russians would come back.

Once an avid student of human rights and the law, Nastya now has little idea what she may be interested in. She is still in her mid-teens, and ordinarily she would have plenty of time to explore her possibilities before making any career choices. However, as with other young people in Ukraine, Nastya’s ambitions and dreams have been interrupted by a war. We don’t know what the long-term effects of this trauma will be. We don’t even know when the war will end.

What we do know is that the youth of Ukraine are victims of circumstances that never had to exist. They are circumstances that are created by irresponsible, and wreckless men of an older generation. Men who have attained leadership roles. Men who abuse their power in a quest for more power, unfortunately at the expense of so many innocent young people.

There is always a ray of hope. If reports from Ukraine are true, then there are many reasons to be hopeful and optimistic about Ukraine’s future. In Kiev, Sviatoslav Syrotyuk takes time to reflect on what this war has caused. It has caused a lot of undue pain. It has caused a lot of bitterness. And on the other side of it all, it has caused some young people like Sviatoslav Syrotyuk to be fired up for a future of getting Ukraine back on its feet, a future of making history. A future in which Sviatoslav Syrotyuk and others like him will be the leaders.

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