Despite protests, riots and political strife engulfing her home country, VCU senior Valentyna Yashchuk has decided to spend her spring break visiting her family in Ukraine.
For centuries, Ukraine has been divided by eastern and western allegiances. When former President Viktor Yanukovych and his government rejected a European Union trade agreement in November 2013 and opted instead for a $15 billion bailout from Russian President Vladimir Putin, protests flared in Western Ukraine and the capital, Kiev.
New anti-protest laws inflamed the riots. Around Feb. 20, 77 people were killed in a 48-hour timespan. The former president, accused of corruption, has fled his palace. Ukrainian’s daunting task now is to establish a coalition government and elect new officials.
All of this has happened in the capital city of Kiev — where her plane is scheduled to land.
“I’m a little nervous now,” Yashchuk said. “I was scared when this all started happening but, you know, Ukraine is my home country and I feel like I have the same right to defend it as those people out there so I shouldn’t be nervous.”
After flying directly into the capital, Yashchuk will board a train to take her on a 12-hour trip to the western city of Chernivtsi. Although the timing is questionable, she hasn’t visited her family there, including her grandmother and her half-sister, since 2010.
Yashchuk moved to Virginia Beach from Ukraine in 2005 when her mother found a job in the United States. She is a senior studying Homeland Security with a minor in political science and hopes to get a job with the U.S. government after she graduates.
The Ukraine of her childhood was a peaceful place, Yashchuk said. She remembers being able to walk around the streets alone as a small child.
“When I was a kid I remember Ukraine as being a very peaceful country,” Yashchuk said. “I moved to the United States and I see all this crime on TV, and you know, you’re scared of being shot or scared of being robbed.”
Gabby Owermohle, a VCU senior with a double major in homeland security and political science, said she understands her friend’s desire to visit her family.
“I think her decision is really bold,” Owermohle said. “I understand wanting to go see friends and family and if I were her I would totally want to as well.”
Owermohle said she thinks it will be safe for Yashchuk because she was born in the Ukraine.
Yashchuk’s friend, junior international relations major Eugene Gudym, is from Kiev and has traveled there recently.
“I think right now, if you aren’t Ukrainian blood it’s not the safest time to visit,” Gudym said.
Gudym said the language barrier plays a big part in deciding how safe it is to take a vacation to Ukraine right now. Gudym also said he thinks most of the protests and political unrest will be under control by the time she arrives.
“I can speak Ukrainian, but if you don’t know what’s going on there you’re just going to be lost in the chaos,” Gudym said.
Part of that chaos is from the media frenzy surrounding the protests. Yashchuk said that her dad warned her not to visit, but she wants to be there to comfort her grandmother.
“My grandma is really affected by it because that is all they play on the news is the protests and the mass killings,” Yashchuk said. “Just imagine 9/11 being played all day, every day.”
With former President Viktor Yanukovych now a fugitive of the new government, the task for Ukrainians is to find stability again. Yashchuk said she hopes the international community will recognize the protestors who have sacrificed their lives for political freedom.
“I just hope it’s not one of those situations where you take one step forward and two steps back,” Yaschuk said.