Yurii Kaparulin had the first panic attack of his life on February 24. A Ukrainian historian of the Holocaust and genocide, he’d been on a fellowship in Bucharest, Romania. Alarmed at warnings that war might be imminent, he’d bought a ticket home to Kherson to be with his wife, Yuliia, and their ten-year-old son, Yevhen.

(Above) Yurii Kaparulin at the Ukrainian-Russian border in February and (below) in Ann Arbor with fellow refugees Oksana Chabanyuk, Anna Taranenko, Katerina Sirinyok-Dolgaryova, and Kseniya Yurtayeva. | Photo credits: Yurii Kaparulin & J. Adrian Wylie

That morning, “I just passed all the security and was waiting for boarding of plane,” he recalls. “Near six a.m., I receive an email from airlines company that my plane is canceled.” 

He got his luggage back and tried to find another way home. “But nobody wanted to go, of course, to Ukraine, because of a lot of missile strikes and bombings. It was a massive attack that first day. Kherson was surrounded by Russian troops.” 

He had left his car in Kherson, but Yuliia doesn’t drive. Their friends Oleksandr and Iryna do, however, and also were determined to get out. They decided that Iryna would drive the Kaparulins’ car, “with her daughter and my wife and son.” Oleksandr would drive their car, “with his son and our mutual friend Anastasia and her daughter.” 

The evening before they left, Kaparulin spoke with his young son by phone. “He told me, ‘Daddy, I just don’t want to go anywhere. I don’t want to die.’ He was very scared.”

Before the invasion, the drive from Kherson to Odessa took three hours, but the refugees had to pass through seven Russian checkpoints and several Ukrainian ones, and they couldn’t drive at night because there was a curfew. They got to Odessa the next morning.

“The next day Oleksandr took our car and drove my wife, son, and our mutual friend Anastasia and her daughter to the border with Romania,” Kaparulin says. “I met them on the other side of the border, without Oleksandr,” because as a man of military age he couldn’t leave the country.

The families continued on to Bucharest, with Kaparulin driving his own car. “We were together for a few days, after which Anastasia and her daughter went to Finland.” Oleksandr has since taken a job in Kyiv, while his wife and children have returned to the comparative safety of Odessa.

The Kaparulins now live in Ann Arbor. Yurii received a “scholars at risk” fellowship at U-M’s Weiser Center for Europe and Eurasia. In August, the family arrived in Ann Arbor for a twelve-month stay.

Weiser Center director Geneviève Zubrzycki already had a fellowship in place. Every academic year, it brings to campus “probably eight to ten scholars for four to eight weeks from all over the former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe—except from Russia.” 

About a month before the invasion, Zubrzycki organized a roundtable on the Ukraine crisis. “We had four speakers … No one but the military expert thought the war was coming.” 

When it did, she recalls “feeling very close to tears … I’ve been to Ukraine. I’ve worked with Ukrainian scholars … You’re in shock. You can’t believe it. You think you’re dreaming … what was most challenging was that everyone wanted to do something and everyone was not coordinating.” 

With support from the center’s donor and namesake, real estate magnate and U-M regent Ron Weiser, she quickly created a second fellowship: a year-long humanitarian program for Ukrainian academics displaced by the war.

Since many of them were refugees, she couldn’t ask for the usual ten-page proposal and letters of reference. Instead, she designed a “really stripped down” application.

“Basically we wanted to know their birth origin, birthdate, if they were coming with dependents and how many, and their field,” says Zubrzycki. She asked for a 300-word description of their research—short enough to type on a phone—and a link to their CV, “and that’s it.” 

Her first challenge was “to go through eligibility for certain groups of people”—men of military age, for instance, couldn’t leave the country. Then she “read all of the applications to see who will benefit from being here—who will be able to have a good mentor so they will be able to arrive here and not feel lost.” 

They received eighty applications and chose seven, most of whom would bring family members with them. Zubrzycki and her team made sure they had visas and housing and arranged for the children to enroll in Ann Arbor public schools. Yevhen Kaparulin is now going to school and making friends at Burns Park elementary.

All the fellows have mentors to help them navigate life and work here. Kaparulin’s is Jeffrey Veidlinger, a historian of Jewish studies and the Holocaust—they met in 2019 when Kaparulin was studying at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. 

Kaparulin says the Weiser Center “has many different people from social science doing some important work, especially in my region.” Some are doing history in real time, “interviewing witnesses of war crimes.” 

Kaparulin says “it’s hard to say right now” what he and his family will do or where they will go when the fellowship ends. “I really hope the war in Ukraine will end by next summer—hopefully earlier.” 

The Russians seized Kherson early in the war, but now the Ukrainians are waging a counteroffensive. Whatever the outcome, Kaparulin believes, it will be a dangerous place, “not only because Russian troops can attack us again, but also because there are mines, and they left a lot of weapons in this region,” making it “very dangerous for kids who are growing up.” 

Oksana Chabanyuk is an assistant professor of architecture and civil engineering at Kharkiv State University. “We knew from the news that there was a threat, and many troops built up around the border, and Kharkiv is very close to the Russian border,” she recalls. But life was going on as normal, and “nobody from our city was actually believing” that Russia would invade.

The family “got up as usual at five” to get the kids to swim training before school. “The first alarm goes off at 5 a.m., and the second at 5:10 a.m. Between those two alarms, we heard the shelling.” They headed for a shelter in the basement of their building. “The very first day changed so much—you know, the [loss of] peaceful life—that it’s even hard to understand.” 

The shelling intensified in the next few days. By the third day, “it came every hour or every hour and a half.” Then, on March 1, “the Russians started to bomb the city. It was the most difficult, because nobody could expect that they will use aircraft missiles and they will be using rockets to bomb the city …

“There was no air raid siren before because it is too close to the border from Russia … After that, we spend much more time in the shelter with the children. The bombings repeated late at night, half-past eleven, late into the evening, or twelve midnight.”

For their first attempt to leave, Chabanyuk says, “we gathered the main things—documents, water, food, and a small amount of clothes” and packed backpacks; no luggage, “because you do not know how long you’ll have to walk.” But there was an “air raid siren, and we were in a place where we couldn’t hide anywhere,” so they turned back.

On the war’s ninth day, they tried again. “It was not possible to even find the car. We were going by foot, and it was very difficult because it was snowing at night, and it was the fourth of March, and we were taking the route that was, in our minds, not so dangerous,” past abandoned buildings and industrial areas.

“We reached the train, and the train was very overcrowded. It was a very difficult twenty-four hours to western Ukraine. We came to Kyiv with many people in the train, sitting and sleeping on the floor in the aisles. People, at certain moments, after twenty hours, didn’t have any water to drink, so people were sharing.

They went on to Lviv, near the Polish border, where Chabanyuk has family. They stayed for a week, but they “were still not sure what we’ll be doing … you couldn’t plan. You cannot predict. You just run.

“You just want to save your children. You cannot even gather your thoughts together.” 

Her husband couldn’t leave the country, but in the middle of March, Chabanyuk and the children left for Munich.

She heard about the U-M fellowship, applied, and was accepted. The family had been in Ann Arbor before, when she had a Fulbright fellowship in 2019–2020, so “this is a familiar place for me.” 

Her daughter, ten, is at Burns Park elementary, and her fourteen-year-old son at Huron. “They are happy, because my daughter went to this same school,” Chabanyuk says. “She met classmates from our previous stay.” Her son was in middle school then, but he, too, has met former classmates. That’s helped them adjust, and eased her mind. 

Russian forces were pushed back when they tried to occupy Kharkiv but are still in artillery range. “The shelling continues,” Chabanyuk says. “The level of destruction is very difficult.”

Of the faculty in her department, she thinks that only “around ten percent” are still in Kharkiv. She’s teaching an online class to students who are scattered all over.  “I don’t even know what exact places they are,” she says.

“For me, as an architect, it is very difficult to see the city destroyed.” But for now, “I do all that I can do to help my children to be safe. That helps me to go on working, to go on helping them live, and resume some of my projects that stopped on the twenty-fourth of February.

“If you would ask me how I stayed centered, if you would ask this question in April or March when we fled, or in May even, probably I would not agree to talk about all the difficulties,” she says. “It’s not easy, even now, to talk about it. But some time has passed, and maybe that helps me to have more of a strong voice and to be more calm.

“But of course I am very worried about my family that is still in Ukraine. I’m very worried about how long still the war will go on, because it’s totally devastating. As I mentioned, there isn’t any, any safe place in Ukraine at all.

“But again, I have to be strong because I have to take care of my children. And if I am working, that helps me attend to life.

“Of course we miss home. Staying in Germany, we missed home. Here we miss home.” 

After her Fulbright and other programs, she always knew she’d be going home when they ended. But when this fellowship ends, “I don’t know if we will be able to go to Kharkiv, to go home.

“Will there still be infrastructure so kids can go to school? Will we be safe? Will there be work? … 

“I do not understand even how to make any decision or how to plan. Time will show. Maybe that’s the answer.” 

Last September, Yurii Kaparulin, his wife Yuliia, and their son Yevhen were on vacation in the Kherson region. The area was seized by Russia early in the war, and now is on the front line again as Ukraine seeks to reclaim its lost territory.

Anna Taranenko is from Kyiv. She emails that her life was “pretty calm and stable,” before the war began. “My parents lived in Severodonetsk, Donbas, very close to the contact line [between Russian and Ukrainian forces]. Yet they didn’t want to move away. We were all hoping that it would be possible to solve the tension in a diplomatic way.” 

On February 24, Taranenko was awakened by a noise around 6 a.m. She wasn’t sure what it was, but then her mother called and “told me that Putin attacked us.”

She “received an email from my university—National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy that due to state of emergency classes were canceled … I also contacted my students.” 

Her parents evacuated from Severodonetsk and joined her in Kyiv. “The most dangerous phase was in February–March,” she writes, “when Russians tried to siege and take over the city.” They failed, but “they did shell us, and occupied neighboring towns …

“Furious because of their inability to occupy Kyiv, Russians terrorized civilians and committed numerous, notorious war crimes in the towns of Bucha, Irpin, and Hostomel, as well as other occupied parts of Kyiv region.”

Taranenko heard about the WCEE “scholars at risk” fellowship through a Facebook group of her Ukrainian university. “I teach and research in the realm of international relations,” she emails. “Foreign policy and diplomacy is our front in this war, so I decided to apply for the program.”

She arrived in Ann Arbor at the end of August and finds it “beautiful and charming.” She’ll be working and writing about “fighting disinformation, cybersecurity, and media literacy.” She’s continuing to teach remotely at her Ukrainian institution and plans “to share the best practices with my students and colleagues. My aim is to contribute to American-Ukrainian relations strengthening through this academic exchange and to make an input into fight for democracy.” 

When the fellowship is over, she plans to return to Ukraine. “It is amazing to follow Ukraine’s victories and rapid advances now in Kharkiv, Donetsk, Luhansk and Kherson regions,” she writes, optimistically. “We are hoping and praying that the victory will be very soon.”