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Ukrainian invasion is personal for DCCC professor

By Jennifer Warner

On Thursday February 24, 2022, President Vladimir Putin of Russia carried out a military invasion of the sovereign nation of Ukraine that is ongoing to this day.

Casualties are mounting by the minute as innocent Ukrainians seek refuge from relentless attacks framed as liberation by the Russian dictator.

The country has endured billions of dollars of infrastructure damage thus far according to Ukrainian government officials, a number that grows daily.

As per their March 18 update, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that more than 200 thousand people are without water access, that around 100 thousand people are without power, and that many parts of the country are facing fatal shortages of medication and sustenance.

UNHCR also documents more than 3.2 million refugees who have fled the country altogether, and an additional 6.5 million people that have been forced to relocate within the country, all in just three weeks’ time.

These devastating figures effect the entire world in varying degrees. For Elena Hopkins, a fulltime ESL faculty member at Delaware County Community College, this war hits home in more ways than one.

In a recent Zoom interview, Hopkins shared her story.

Q: Where are you from, and what has your journey been like leading up to your position at DCCC?

I was born in the small town of Melitopol. My dad was a military person, and my mom was a chemistry teacher. When I was 17 and after graduating high school, I was lucky enough to get into one of the most prestigious universities in the former Soviet Union, located in Minsk, Belarus. I was very happy about that.

I started English and German as foreign languages there and was given a position to teach at the university following my education. I got into the PhD program a year later, got my PhD in Belarus. I studied a little bit in Moscow, and continued teaching at Minsk (State) Linguistics University.

From there, I applied for various scholarships and received two full ride scholarships, one to Princeton University and one to the University of Pennsylvania. I went to Princeton in the year 2000 for a two-year program, got married, and have lived here in the US ever since.

Q: So, you were there prior to 1991 when the Ukraine became independent. What was that like?

I was in Belarus at that point, but my parents were still in the Ukraine. They lived their whole lives there.

My dad passed away in 2015 and was still living in the Ukraine. I brought my mom here in 2017 a couple of years after Russia took Crimea, because I knew then that Putin would not stop there.

I thought that he would continue moving west and that it would be harder for me to get her out of there later. I guess I moved her on time.

Q: How much of your family is still in Ukraine?

My cousin is there with his daughter and his son, my niece and nephew, and they have two children, a 10-year-old and a four-year-old. When this war started, they were living in Kharkiv, the second largest city that was bombed.

They were hiding in a cellar they had dug in the backyard, because they were afraid to stay in the basement of their house. They thought that if the house was bombed, they would be buried in the debris.

They hid there for 11 days until the bombing became so heavy that the 10-year-old was inconsolable. She was so fearful. She cried the whole night, and they were afraid that something would happen to her psychologically. They were afraid she would stop speaking.

The very next day they left. They were lucky to leave then because now, Russian’s have encircled the city. Now, it’s impossible to leave.

Q: What are the biggest struggles they are currently facing?

I have contact with them when they have internet access, but it’s spotty. After they fled, my niece found a university friend who offered her family a small house of some kind. There is no inside water and there is an outhouse.

They relocated to this house in central Ukraine and are just extremely happy that no planes are flying above their heads and that they're not being bombed. I have been trying to get them here to the US with no luck.

I have spent a lot of time trying to get the right information. I don’t think it’s a lack of desire to help. I think it's because this is one of the first times people have been in this situation and they don't really know how to deal with that.

I contacted the Congress woman's office several times and was sent general information each time. I kept pressing for something more concrete and was eventually redirected to the Polish embassy, but they don’t even deal with refugee visas. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services deals with these visas.

I looked online and found a very convoluted process. So, at this point, I have not gotten much help. But I'm still working on it. I explained to the office that if my family goes to the border, if they're even able to get to the border, they will be standing in that line for at least two days. They will be hungry. They will be thirsty. They will be dirty.

From the border, I will have to take them to the embassy, which is in central Poland. That's another day at least. And what will we achieve there? What’s the time frame? Is it going to be another day? A week? A month just to fill out all those papers and get out? Nobody knows. According to my research, it’s a long process that can take months. People can’t do this for months. Something needs to be sped up.

My family is also afraid that they will be stuck on the border because there are so many people fleeing the country. They’re worried that with two small children, they wouldn't be able to handle it. I'm ready to go there, pick them up, or do whatever I need in to with the embassy. Whenever they're ready, I’m willing to help.

In addition to these struggles, my aunt in another part of the country told me there are posts everywhere, checking people who come in and out of the city. One of her acquaintances passed one of these check points on his bicycle on the way to his second home 8 miles away from the city. There, they stripped him down to his underwear. I think the only reason they did this was to humiliate him because it was clear he didn’t have any weapons. At the same time, other Russians who were sitting in trenches were shooting bullets above his head. I don’t know what the purpose of this was, maybe they were warning him that he shouldn't run? But it was obvious that he was a resident. He wasn’t a military person. He was riding a bike. It’s sick. He made it out of there alive, but not without psychological torture.

Q: How have you been coping with this news? Do you have support here?

Yes, I do. My husband is supporting me. My daughter is devastated too. She's working for a bakery part-time while she's in school and she began making cookies with the Ukrainian colors, blue with yellow sunflowers, and the proceeds will go to Ukraine.

I have trouble sleeping because I don't think that this will end well. After one of the sleepless nights, I wrote a poem about how I felt. I’ve never written poems, but I had such heavy feelings that I needed to put them down somewhere. There are many things that I hold inside, but I just had to pour that onto paper. It's not about me, although there is ‘I’ in the poem. I'm just that little piece of sand in the world who feels that pain.

It's a helpless feeling. During the first week especially, my niece was sending the most heartbreaking messages. I'm a problem solver by nature, and when you are just helpless, completely powerless, it's the worst feeling that a person can have.

Q: In talking with your family, what are some of the ways you’ve learned of that the Ukrainian people are standing up for each other, for their country, for their freedom? Any stories that deserve to be highlighted?

My niece was telling that the humanitarian aid in Kharkiv had incredibly long lines. The older women in her family, her mother and her mother-in-law, would stand in those lines for hours just to be able to feed the family. On the way back, whenever they would see Ukrainian soldiers who were also hungry, they would share their food with the soldiers. Sometimes they would even cook. They were living in jackets because the bombing could start at any time. They knew that at any moment they could lose electricity, or a bomb could fall on the house, and still, they would cook, and they would share that food with Ukrainian soldiers.

My mother's side of the family is in Melitopol, where I was born. The situation is also dire there. They can't even leave because the liberators have mined all the exits. The town is full of checkpoints and controlled by Russians. There is a lot of looting going on. Nothing is working. The banks are not working. Stores are empty. They live on their previous supplies right now, but they don't know how those will last. Still, they have a sense of humor.

I spoke to my aunt, and she told me a story of unarmed Ukrainian villagers fighting with just their wit.

There were four Russian tanks heading to the heavily bombarded city of Sumy. They didn't have enough gasoline for the four of them. They decided to pour all the gasoline into the two of the tanks and search for more gas, leaving the empty tanks somewhere on the side of the road.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian residents came out and put Ukrainians flags on these empty tanks. When the Russians returned and saw this, they decided to destroy those tanks. I have no clue what the rationale was there. The two remaining tanks proceeded on to attempt to invate the city. One of them tried to cross a bridge over water that read “Two Tons Only.” For reference, that’s around the weight of a sedan. What do you think happened? The tank fell into the water and sank.

The last tank, scared and alone, decided to go around the bridge. It went full speed downhill and tumbled, destroying the last tank. The Ukrainian residents came back out with posters proclaiming that they destroyed 4 tanks in 1 day with no weapons.

My 66 years old aunt told me that she would go on demonstrations every day in Melitopol. Many are demonstrating daily against the Russians, especially after they abducted their mayor. She said that they’re surrounded by Russians with weapons who shoot into the air, warning them that if they don't stop, they're going to start shooting people.

Nevertheless, people demonstrate every single day.

Q: How do you feel about President Zelenskyy’s decision making throughout all this, as he firmly stands his ground in the capital?

I don't know much about President Zelenskyy’s past. When he was elected, he was completely inexperienced, but I hoped he might grow into his role. Judging by what I see on our TV, I think that for this time he's perfect. He is with people. He's encouraging people. He goes to hospitals and talks to them. He talks about children, although it's painful. I can't even imagine a mother losing a child, and he talks directly to those people, to those mothers.

Look at how he behaves on the world arena. Parliaments accept him. United nations are giving him standing ovations. He refused to leave the city, although that has its own consequences because that's Putin's aim, to get him there and basically behead the Ukraine.

But he's still there and I'm very proud of him. I think that is a huge plus for Ukrainians. I'm a person who looks at the big picture, and I think for this particular moment in time, he is perfect.

Q: Do you have Russian friends who are caught in the middle of this conflict?

I did have direct contact with Russians, but people have stopped communicating. I don't know if they're afraid to reach out, and I don't bother them at all because I understand the repercussions for them. Especially with his new laws that Putin issued.

My family has communicated with people in Russia who think that Putin is saving Ukraine. They're telling them, ‘Just be patient. Just wait a little bit longer. Putin will liberate Ukraine.’

The people who listen to Russian mass media are brainwashed. There are older generations who don't use or have access to the internet and watch only Russian television. Then there are younger generations who have access to internet and who travel a lot, who know Putin is lying. Those people are against him.

What’s scary is that he's trying to tighten the frame of his dictatorship with new laws. For example, there was a woman who came out on the street with a blank poster, just a blank piece of paper, and she was arrested. There was nothing written on that poster.

Q: In your opinion, how does all this end?

It all happened because of one person. It’s been characteristic of Russia for many centuries when one person is in charge, from the monarchy to the Soviet Union and now this authoritarian sort of gangster club.

I don't think that Putin will stop anytime soon. He's backed in the corner. He doesn't have anything to lose at this point, and he's trying to save face in front of his people. I also think he might not be mentally healthy. I’m not a doctor, but it seems that way.

It is reminiscent of Stalin's times. Under his dictatorship, people were disappearing at night. People were abducted and placed in camps. More than 20 million people were killed in Russian concentration camps, which is greater than the amount of people the Soviet Union lost during WWII. I think Putin is his 21st century brother. He uses the same methods. Like Stalin, he will tell you what to watch. He will tell you what to think.

He's desperate at this point. He has asked for military help from China because he's running out of his own resources. They are afraid he'll use chemical weapons. It's scary.

So, I think, people inside Russia need to rise. I think internally something needs to be done. Because they need to understand that he's harming not only Ukraine, not only Russia, but the whole world. Different governments have been trying for decades to get him out and nothing has happened, so I think this needs to happen from within.

Q: What do you think is the most meaningful way the public can help the people of Ukraine?

Look for organizations that describe exactly what they do for the Ukraine. For example, when I donated to my organization of choice, they wrote that they deliver humanitarian food, medical supplies, and more to the Ukraine. This is important because in terms of money, the banks are closed. I can't send money to my relatives. Donating to the organizations who risk their lives to bring physical aid would be a great help.

Q: Is there anything you’d like to add?

I wanted to add that I blame only one person for all this, and that’s Putin. I blame no Russians, although some of them are brainwashed but that's not their fault. I don't blame the Ukrainians who leave. I only blame Putin.

I feel very proud of those men who get their children and wives to the border and stay in the country to fight. I feel proud of the elderly people standing in front of the tanks and trying to prevent their movement. I’m proud of everybody helping in the ways that they can.

All the people from Ukraine with whom I have been talking are very grateful for all the effort, support, and aid that has come from the United States and the European Union. It matters to them a lot that millions of people are on their side.

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