Ukraine-Russia: ‘My mother is teaching English to children in her Kyiv bomb shelter’, says St Andrews academic

When St Andrews university academic Darya Tsymbalyuk finished her PhD on the displacement of citizens during the 2014 war in eastern Ukraine just three months ago, she had no idea her country would soon be once more ravaged by conflict with Russia.

Now Ms Tsymbalyuk, a tutor at the Fife university, is working hard to fundraise to send aid to her home country – while waiting for news of her parents.

Her mother is passing her time in an underground bomb shelter in Kyiv by giving English lessons to children, while her father, a retired Ukrainian army major, has returned as a volunteer fighter against Russian forces.

“I only finished my PhD in November and then this happened,” she says. “I am not sleeping very much, just doing all I can to fundraise here in St Andrews, to do what I can from here.”

Darya Tsymbalyuk, dressed in the colours of the Ukrainian flag, addresses students at a vigil in support of Ukraine in St Andrews on Monday.

When the news of the invasion broke, her mother, who lives in a Kyiv apartment just a few hundred metres from the TV tower that was hit by Russian forces on Tuesday night, decided to take shelter on a metro platform.

“She is in the metro,” says Ms Tsymbalyuk. “Luckily, Kyiv has very deep metro stations, it was the nature of this city that they had to dig really deep.

"When the attack on the TV tower happened, there were people [above ground] who were in a taxi – they were just about to leave Kyiv – and this happened. They ran to the metro and that's how my mum found out that this happened.

“My mum teaches English and she made these materials, a sort of colourful alphabet where children can move the letters round to make words. So she went home to get them and is passing the time by trying to give the children down there some English lessons.

"There are so many people, children and dogs, all down there in the metro.

"She tries to go and get home for a bit in the morning to get some food and a shower and go back for the afternoon and the night, but there's some families who haven't left the shelter for a week because not everybody in Kyiv lives next to the metro, so some people have come from other districts much further away.”

Ms Tsymbalyuk adds: "The TV tower was 800m from my home. The house is still standing, but my mum said some glass in the windows was broken. Some of the neighbours in her apartment block have gone to the metro, but others have stayed in the basement.

"The metro is better organised. There is hot food being delivered and snacks. It was the same during the revolution [in 2014]. If you were somewhere where there was a lot of people, it was better organised.”

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Ms Tsymbalyuk’s parents both have links to Russia. Her mother grew up in Russia, while Ms Tsymbalyuk’s father, although born in Ukraine, spent much of his early life in Moscow, where his mother – Ms Tsymbalyuk’s grandmother – still lives, along with her uncle.

"My mother graduated from Moscow State University, her dissertation was on Tolstoy,” she says. “She is fairly pro-Ukrainian and supportive, so it was a big shock for her when this began. But she abandoned everything Moscow when they started bombing Donbas [eight years ago].

"My father is Ukrainian, but he doesn’t even speak Ukrainian perfectly. He grew up in Moscow during the Soviet Union and went back to live in Ukraine when he was with the army [before the fall of Communism].

"He was retired by the time the war [in Donbas] started in 2014. After the military, he was working in logistics, he left the army quite early. In 2014, he went to the volunteer battalion and he fought in Donbas for a year and then came back and was working in a factory in Ukraine.”

Her father had no hesitation in signing up to fight when the war began.

Ms Tsymbalyuk says: “They have both been living in Kyiv for a while. He was there when this escalation started, and he didn't manage to move to the south in time, where he still has ammunition and stuff from the first war.

"So he just went to the battalion in Kyiv – and we hope they have provided ammunition there. I'm not able to talk to him. He just messages me every 12 hours or so to say "I’m OK”.

The conflict has stirred up friction with family members in Russia.

"I shouted at my grandmother,” she says. “She is Ukrainian, she has a Ukrainian name, but she keeps calling us a pejorative term, she doesn’t call us Ukrainians.

"I told her ‘shut up, we are Ukrainians’. But she clearly believes that this is some kind of anti-terror operation that Russia is doing in Ukraine and we ended the conversation with her saying ‘we’ll see who’s going to be right, time will tell’.”

Ms Tsymbalyuk, 31, says other Ukrainian students at the university – there are only around 20, plus a handful of staff – are finding the situation stressful and she is trying to help them.

She says: "I'm obviously older and I had to experience Ukraine during the revolution in Kyiv. So I have experience of kind of dealing with extreme situations. Some of the students are so young, just 18. They are not sleeping and they are very stressed.”

Ms Tsymbalyuk adds: “After the revolution, I think there was a tremendous shift in Ukraine. Culturally, so many interesting things were happening and it was just very dynamic, lots of civic initiatives.

"There was a kind of spirit that we can make change, we can do things. We can be together. Now, that's already established, kind of practices, cultural memory, personal memory of getting involved.”

She knows her parents will not leave and will instead stick out the war in Ukraine.

She says: "I am very happy for people who have fled, but I think if my parents had to move, that would be rather traumatic for them. My mum will not leave because my dad is there and my dad is not going to leave because he has to defend the country. She has to be there for him.”

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