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War & Escape – After One Year

Camila Balcazar Lagues -

Camila Balcazar Lagues -

It has been more than a year since Russia declared war on Ukraine. We had a conversation with Sasha, a Russian student that came to KTH to study in a Master's program two years ago. Despite her nationality, she has been an advocate against the war and avidly devoted her free time to helping Ukrainian refugees since day one. Here is how the conversation went.

Do you remember how you learned about the war?

It was a horrible and scary experience for me. I spent the entire night of the 24th of February of 2022 messaging my mom about my plans to go to Russia to visit my family. I had been planning to go on a vacation and take some summer courses as well. Then, out of nowhere, I saw a message from my mom saying that the war had started.

I checked the news. It was really frightening and unrealistic. I felt stressed and had panic attacks while reading the news. I remember spending hours on my phone, reading the news, and checking on my Ukrainian friends. I felt very angry - towards my government for their actions.

You don't agree with the war and Russia’s government then…

No. But already before the war, they tortured and imprisoned people for their political opinions, even inside Russia. I could never agree with their views, and I knew this for a long time, so I was not surprised by how cruel they are.

After the initial shock, I realized what was happening. I have many Ukrainian friends on Instagram, and I could see that they needed help. I started reposting and helping them online. I began to question myself: should I help in real life? I started sharing information about how to escape Ukraine and which countries to go to.

I am also part of a Christian community, not only in Russia but also in Ukraine. We started to help people escape, and I knew I could help, especially since I speak Russian and many in Ukraine speak Russian too. Many people messaged me from inside Ukraine, and I helped them learn about Sweden. They started to arrive. We organized places for them to live and picked them up from the airport. I took on the role of coordinator, and we created a network of help with a lot of Swedes to help them settle here.

But this was also very scary because I would sometimes lose contact with the people I was helping, and I would worry if they were still alive. Seeing the conditions of how they had to escape with their children… no water, no lights, no food, crowded, everyone crying. It was unbelievably scary. It was very traumatizing, but I somehow gathered the strength to help people: every time I helped someone find a free ride, it felt like some sort of miracle. It was a beautiful thing coming out of something so horrendous.

Do you feel responsible just because you are Russian?

Maybe… my nation started this war, so I felt the need to show that I do not stand with them. But Ukraine is also very close to my heart, I used to travel and spend a lot of time there when I was a teenager, so I felt like I needed to do something.

How has it been to help so many people?

One time, I met a Ukrainian family - they were arriving from Poland at Nynäshamn, and I got into the news! It was strange to see myself on the news, and it actually felt surreal. There was a lot of press, and all the volunteers were super prepared with food, SIM-cards, clothes and so much more.

Some people had connections in Sweden and knew what to do, but others were just trying to understand what was happening and deciding what to do next. And I was there, standing with a sign, watching all of this while just trying to recognize this family that I had only ever seen in photos. So when we finally met I just helped carry their belongings when they recorded us for the TV, but I didn’t really notice.

Later that evening when I was home, I was just watching the news and I saw myself carrying their bags, on the TV…! It was straight out of a movie, so surreal, but it was real life!

Overall, the hardest part has been coping with my emotions. I remember one time that I was in a group meeting on Zoom, and I couldn't hold it anymore. I just cried. I couldn't focus because it was so overwhelming. I had to apologize to my groupmates but I just couldn't keep it together anymore, it was embarrassing.

Could you go home to Russia? Where is your family now?

My family is safe, they had to emigrate but they are okay.

I on the other hand have been talking about politics openly, and there are many examples of how you could get imprisoned just for that. So, I don't feel safe going back because if any of my contacts reported me, it could be dangerous. Therefore I wouldn't go.

How do you feel now after a year of war?

It has been essential for me to maintain a relationship with the people I helped. In the beginning, there was some tension because of my nationality, but after all this time, I feel like that has passed. I think it’s very generous of them, to be open to seeing me as a human who doesn't agree with Russian politics and doesn't want this war. They saw that it was just me, trying to help. I am so grateful for their trust and I am happy to show that not all Russians are bad and that we are not all the same. I even spend more time with Ukrainians now than with Russians, and I have gained some very close friends.

I believed that with time it would be easier to cope with all of these feelings but it is still very painful. I guess this is because no one expected this to last so long. And here we are, more than a year later and it is still going on! It’s very cruel for both sides, people in Russia are being taken to war by force and people in Ukraine are dying.

I feel like my feelings are a bit more under control somehow. But that is not permanent: one single piece of information can make it all come back to me. I just wonder when it will finally be over…

Do you want to support Ukraine? Here are some links where you can find ways of helping:

Publicerad: 2023-04-25

Ansvarig utgivare: Raquel Frescia
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