Georgiy Volevach and Noelia Lombardo Gava (MBAs ’22) report on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and what you can do to help.
Every individual has the power to effect change and show leadership. It is what our democracy is built on and a privilege for which we have fought hard. If you believe there is nothing you can personally do to stop this war, this article is for you.
War in Europe. Seeing these words feels surreal given a conflict of this scale in the continent last took place in 1945. The military conflict between Russia and Ukraine began with the Russian annexation of Crimea and the Russian-backed separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine in 2014. The conflict further escalated when Russia conducted significant military build-ups throughout 2021 on the borders of Ukraine with Russia and Belarus. Thus, the launch of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24 should have been a plausible scenario, but it still hit most of the world by surprise, perhaps because nobody was prepared for it, not having experienced anything comparable in their lifetimes. Although the outcome is still completely uncertain, it is already clear that this war will reshape geopolitics and leave a lasting impact on humanity.
While the fighting is taking place thousands of miles away from Boston and the HBS campus, the effects are felt deeply throughout all parts of our community. “I was at a bar in Harvard Square with friends when the news hit. They dropped the first bombs early in the morning in Europe. Reading those headlines is a moment I will never forget. Nothing has been the same ever since,” says Georgiy Volevach (MBA ’22), who was born in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. The morning after, the reactions across the city ranged from shock and disbelief to anger and a strong drive for resistance. A spontaneous protest in Boston Common by the local Ukrainian community attracted dozens of people. Within Harvard, several students started channeling their desire to help into a call for action. Quickly organized through various social media channels, first response initiatives started to emerge, ranging from student-led protests on Harvard Yard to petitions to the university to make an official, centralized statement, which, to this date, has still not happened. All of that was happening on top of every student’s fears for the safety of their loved ones at home.
While only men between the ages of 18 and 60 must remain in the country in case they are required to fight, many women and elderly chose to stay and support the resistance. Some, especially in the eastern parts of Ukraine, simply could not flee due to the danger of being caught in the fighting or to the lack of available transportation. Those who decided to flee have since made their way mostly to neighboring EU countries like Poland. The US has also been an important destination for some of the almost four million refugees from Ukraine. This refugee movement is a crisis of its own that will likely grow for months to come, occupying policymakers and affecting individual citizens. “The response of individuals abroad has been incredibly positive so far. My immediate family migrated to Germany when I was a child, so my parents were able to take in a few people who had fled. They were overwhelmed by the amount of support everyone around them offered. Housing, clothes, toys for kids or help with paperwork, everyone tried to chip in. I think the challenge will arise when the war continues, and people are forced to stay permanently. Most refugees do want to go back to their previous livelihoods as quickly as possible, but those livelihoods may forever be destroyed.”
Everyone who opposes the war is feeling powerless, regardless of how much they can contribute to help. It is frustrating to put in hours of effort into help initiatives or donating every dollar one can spare (or not spare) to humanitarian organizations only to find out in the morning that the killing has only become worse. This feeling of frustration is coupled with a strong fear that affected students must live with every day. Fear of something happening to their friends and family. Fear that people who now oppose the war might get used to it and become indifferent. Fear that the global unity in support of Ukraine might be eroded.
Not only Ukrainian students, but all students with Eastern European ties are affected. Russian and Belarusian students who oppose the war are faced with potential hardships for their families at home if they speak up. And if they do not, they fear being seen as supporting the Russian regime. Students from the Baltics, and other western countries neighboring Ukraine are afraid the fighting may hit their homes after all. “Ukraine has been a haven to many people escaping Belarus after the government crackdown following Belarusian 2020 election protests, and many of my friends relocated from Belarus to Kyiv or Lviv. Those people, a lot of them working in the tech industry, had to flee again. In a tragedy for the entire region, they are now running away from war after escaping police prosecution 1.5 years ago,” says Anton Kraminkin (MBA ’23). It is hard to see who is suffering and how, which is why open conversations about the conflict are so crucial. “The response of the HBS support services has been inclusive, as SAS offered support to students with ties from all involved countries in the conflict and neighboring countries. HBS organized a special Ukraine response task force and invited students to contribute both strategically and operationally to its support efforts,” says Kramikin.
Svitlana Repina (MBA ’23) is spearheading the efforts of the Ukraine response task force in the school. Born and raised in Ukraine, she shares with us her feelings, thoughts and advice on what we can do to help.
How are you feeling?
It’s difficult to answer because I don’t fully understand how I feel. I’m not fine. But I’m also safe, I have food, my family is doing fine at the moment, so I don’t want to complain because there are so many people doing really bad. I’m still trying to find a good answer to this question. The way I usually answer is by saying that my family is fine the last time I checked, so I’m fine too.
I’m still in denial. I haven’t fully embraced the idea that I will never ever see Kyiv the way I remembered it during the winter break. I understand what’s happening, but I still haven’t accepted it with my heart. My brain is protecting me with denial and hope; I still have a dream of going back home soon. This idea keeps me going.
I also understand that it can be hard and confusing for people to talk to me; they don’t know what to tell me. But nobody was prepared for this situation, so if there’s something you want to say to me, go ahead, do not worry.
What do your days look like now?
My days have changed significantly. When it just started, I tried to stick to my routine and keep everything normal. I didn’t want to be reading the news all the time. On the first day of the war, I went to class, I raised my hand. But after that it became very difficult. I had moments when I tried to not check the news all the time, but I couldn’t, especially when the war was getting close to Kyiv. The time difference didn’t help, because at 1am I was getting the news of what happened during the night back home. I was going to bed at 4am. I just couldn’t stop. These days my calendar is packed with initiatives to help Ukraine. It’s really busy, but I’m trying to keep things as normal as I can.
Tell us more about those initiatives, how are you collaborating with the school?
I really appreciate the way HBS responded; I know that some schools have been quite indifferent. As the war started, HBS organized meetings with all students from the region (the “affected students”)—mostly from Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus.
With the school, we are working on four streams. The first one is attending to the immediate needs of affected students, such as visa consultations, financial aid, and mental support. The second one is communication and education, for which we are organizing panels, discussions and gathering of resources to keep people informed. The third one is alumni engagement; we are coordinating alumni who are willing to help and providing them with resources. This stream also cooperates with Harvard to divest the university from any exposure to Russia. The fourth one is looking at HBS and Ukraine in the long term. We are talking to the administration and faculty to integrate the war in the curriculum and brainstorming with them about long-term ways to help Ukraine rebuild and recover from what has been destroyed. We also think of a special scholarship fund for Ukrainians to increase their presence at the school. There are only two students from Ukraine in RC year, and no EC student is a Ukrainian citizen. The current focus is on the first two streams, but I really want to move on to the third and the fourth. I keep on telling everyone that I’m ok, but my country is not, so that it is my country that really needs help. If you want to help me, help Ukraine.
What do you think are the biggest challenges moving forward?
We need to be more public about what we’re doing. There’s still no public statement from Harvard for Ukraine’s support. It would be an inspiring, powerful message from a top US education institution which is highly recognized and admired in Ukraine. People on the ground might get tired as the war goes on, it’s important for them to understand that the world still cares. The public side of conversations is important. In the long-run I hope to have measurable achievements to report on the streams three and four as I explained above.
To finish, what can readers do to help?
The response of classmates has been overwhelmingly positive. From the beginning, I received lots of messages—I couldn’t reply to all of them, so I started to share updates on my family and the war on Instagram (@svitlanarepina). My sectionmates also organized a meal train for me, and I got so many flowers that I had to get creative and cut plastic bottles to put them in. I also appreciate everyone coming to multiple panels on Ukraine we held, and there are more to come!
But I will repeat what I said earlier, I’m ok, but my country is not. I keep on asking my contacts on the ground what help they need, and the answer to this question keeps being a moving target.
Right now private businesses can help in different ways, such as donating financial resources to provide humanitarian aid, helping Ukrainians who need a job with fast track job applications or visa support, stopping business with Russia, if they have not done so yet, and taking a clear public stance on the war. Finally, be creative and think of unique ways in which your specific organization can help. For example, Airbnb has created a database of hosts willing to take Ukrainian refugees and allowed apartment bookings in Ukraine as a way to financially support local hosts. There will be much more opportunities for private sector involvement once the active phase of the war is over.
As an individual, you can also help with donations, but it is not the only way. Keep on showing your support to Ukraine and let your elected officials know—this is extremely important. Reach out to affected students and offer your skills and network for help. We have achieved tremendous results leveraging employee support within individual businesses and organizations. No gesture of support will be too small. Also, don’t get indifferent after time passes. Push yourself to stay informed and engaged. We are here for the long run, but Ukraine will win, and so will democracy and freedom
For more information on how to help, visit https://help.gov.ua/en
Noelia Lombardo Gava (MBA ’22) was born in Argentina but identifies herself as a global citizen. She is a biomedical engineer, a management consultant, a storyteller and a lifelong migrant. She loves the outdoors, diving, yoga, reading, and good debates.
Georgiy Volevach (MBA ’22) was born in Ukraine, grew up in Germany and believes in the European idea. He is a mechanical engineer and consultant with a passion for the energy transition. He loves hiking, late-night comedy and all things Shad.