It has been almost four months since Russia sent its troops into Ukraine, marking the first time since WWII that a European country has invaded its neighbour. This ‘special military operation’, as the Russian government calls it, has been a complete political and humanitarian catastrophe, resulting in tens of thousands of casualties and over seven million refugees.
As is the case with most wars, some of the hardest hit are the country’s young. With their home continuously being destroyed, an entire generation has been left with an uncertain future and a country to rebuild. This has not, however, discouraged them from taking a stand and supporting their homeland, both in Ukraine and abroad.
Ukrainians have a long history in the UK. Thousands of Britons can trace their heritage to migration waves from Ukraine’s golden fields, some dating back to the 19th century with Manchester being one of the community’s largest hubs. At the outbreak of the war, Ukrainians across the country raised their flags, organised demonstrations and launched campaigns to raise funds to support their country’s fight for freedom.
An eventful semester of campaigning
On 24 February the Manchester central library was lit up with the colours of the Ukrainian flag. The city stood united in its support for the embattled country and its struggle to maintain its freedom, with the student community not far behind. In the University of Manchester (UoM), students formed a new Ukrainian Society and, with the help of the students’ union, the Young European Movement Manchester and the university’s European societies, launched a fundraising and awareness campaign on the UK’s largest campus.
Donation stalls for refugees were opened, charity events organised and over £6,000 raised to date for the ‘British-Ukrainian Aid’ charity.
Manchester was no exception. Similar actions took place in many other British universities as the war dragged on. A big milestone has been the creation of the Ukrainian Students Union to bring together Ukrainian students in the UK.
As the academic semester drew to a close, I was happy to take part in the organisation of perhaps the most exciting closing event imaginable – a Q&A discussion with the president of Ukraine himself, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. This is not the first time Zelenskyy has made such appearances in foreign universities, similar events have taken place in countries like France and the US.
On 10 June, UoM students were able to attend the discussion in person. The event was organised with the help of the Ukrainian embassy, and included other universities, such as Birmingham, Cambridge, City University of London, Coventry, Glasgow, LSE, Oxford and UCL.
The UoM Ukrainian Society welcomed students in Manchester to two event spaces – one in Manchester Museum and one in University Place. The discussion was chaired by Prof. Dimitris Papadimitriou from the Manchester Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence and Anna Glew from the MOBILISE research team, with the organisational support of the University of Manchester students’ union.
The event attracted over 200 participants, an achievement of which co-organisers and Ukrainian Society committee members Mariia Horb, Jan Szkulepa and Makar Mizevych were very proud. All universities took turns asking the president questions, ranging from plans to rebuild the country to future opportunities for young people to develop their professional careers in Ukraine.
Zelenskyy spoke confidently and sincerely, stressing the important role young people will play in rebuilding the country after the war and his government’s plans to foster innovation and expand educational opportunities. When asked by a Channel 4 representative if he was ready to concede territory to Russia to end the war, the president’s answer was clear: “There is nothing we can concede.”
While acknowledging the importance of diplomacy and its necessity to end the war, he noted that Russian president Vladimir Putin is not willing to negotiate and never has been. Despite being a wartime leader, Zelenskyy demonstrated a heartfelt optimism, as well as a very much intact sense of humour.
An event worth remembering
The event was well received by attendees, many of whom expressed how grateful they were for this amazing opportunity to witness a live discussion with perhaps Europe’s most famous head of state. Ukrainian students were honoured to hear their president address them personally and were motivated by his commitment to create a future for them in their country.
The event attracted much attention from the media, but it is important to note that the war in Ukraine, like most conflicts before it, has lost much of the attention it initially garnered. Russian forces continue to pour into the country as the war has moved to Eastern Ukraine, mainly in the Donbass region and its surroundings.
While NATO countries continue to send military aid and the country looks poised to be granted candidate status to join the European Union in the future, this has only been possible thanks to the public pressure of ordinary citizens across the continent. Just like the students in Manchester, we should not forget about Ukraine.
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