Campus & community, Opinion, People, Profiles, Voices

Student Vitaliia Yaremko: ‘I’m more proud than ever to be Ukrainian’

“It is not a time for despair and passivity,” says Vitaliia Yaremko, a fifth-year UC Berkeley Ph.D. student in economics. “It is time for action to end the war.”

two youth and an adult dressed in traditional Ukrainian outfits

From left: Vitaliia Yaremko, her cousin and her aunt wearing traditional Hutsul clothes in summer 2006. Hutsuls are an ethnic group of western Ukraine. (Photo courtesy of Vitaliia Yaremko)

This I’m A Berkeleyan feature was written as a first-person narrative from an interview with Vitaliia Yaremko, a fifth-year UC Berkeley Ph.D. student in economics. Have someone you think we should write about? Contact [email protected].

“I was born in 1991, when Ukraine declared its independence and the Soviet Union collapsed. I grew up in a rural area of western Ukraine in the Ivano-Frankivsk region in a home built by my grandparents. My parents and grandparents still live there. This is the place I call my home, no matter where I live.

a child on top of a slide

Vitaliia, age 7, in her hometown in western Ukraine’s Ivano-Frankivsk region. (Photo courtesy of Vitaliia Yaremko)

All of my family is still in Ukraine. They are not leaving. They believe in the Ukrainian army, and they believe in themselves. They have emergency kits, and they are trying to prepare for the worst, but hope for the best. And they are ready to protect themselves and their country. My dad says, ‘This is our home. How could we leave it? If the enemy comes, we will protect our home.’ It might be a question of life or death, but constantly living in fear is also devastating. So, my parents, just like many other Ukrainians, have accepted responsibility for their lives.

During all the time when Russia was stacking troops on the Ukrainian border, I hoped it would only use it as a negotiation tool.

When I heard that the full-scale invasion started from Russia, and that Belarus, Crimea and multiple Ukrainian cities, including those in my region, were subject to missile attacks, I was shocked and paralyzed by fear for my family and friends. I couldn’t believe that a war this big could happen in the middle of Europe in 2022.

This is still hard to process. My parents, however, while in shock, from the very first day, didn’t have the luxury to shiver because they had to be strong and support everyone around them and possibly even fight for their lives. It helped me to realize that it is not a time for despair and passivity. It is time for action to end the war.

Since the very first day, the Ukrainian army has been fiercely fighting back the attacks of occupants. Civilians, too, have been bravely protecting their cities and towns. New legions symbolizing courage and invincibility are being born every day. I see the response of the Ukrainian authorities and the Ukrainian people. I see announcements by the president, by military forces, and I wholeheartedly believe that they are doing everything possible to protect Ukraine. I trust them. They have to succeed. I believe that they will defend Ukraine’s sovereignty in its current borders. But for the war to end with minimal deaths and suffering, Ukraine needs all the support it can get.

a child and an adult on a city street in Ukraine

Vitaliia, age 11, with her mom at Sofiyivska Square during her first visit to Kyiv in winter 2002. (Photo courtesy of Vitaliia Yaremko)

During the first two days of the war, I was heartbroken observing the sluggish response of the international community because it is a crucial force to stop Russia. Russia cannot take Ukraine just within one day, and maintaining war is costly. While Russia has some reserves, they rely on crucial relationships with the West for the economy. Therefore, weakening Russia economically is crucial to ending the war. Recent developments provide more grounds for optimism.

On Feb. 26 through Feb. 27, multiple countries imposed sanctions on Russian companies, oligarchs and politicians. Thanks to the sanctions, every day of continuing war causes tremendous economic losses in Russia. Additionally, every day, uncountable rallies in support of Ukraine are happening all over the world, including Russia! Companies are stopping providing their services in Russia. Inconveniencing Russians makes it more difficult for them to ignore the war in Ukraine. Foreign governments approve massive military and humanitarian aid packages for Ukraine. Volunteers from abroad are joining Ukrainian soldiers to protect Ukraine.

Observing these developments after long hours of despair, my heart wants to celebrate … but the grim reality reminds me it is too early. Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities are still under fire, with thousands of people hiding in bomb shelters and hundreds who have died protecting Ukraine. Civilians are still dying and getting wounded under Russian attacks. Putin is sending more troops to Ukraine. Belarus is preparing to join the Russian invasion. Thanks to the sanctions imposed on Russia, the countdown till the end of the war has started, but we don’t know the timeline yet. It could be days, weeks or months.

Putin’s rhetoric about the motivation for this unlawful, unprovoked war is duplicitous. I think the war is mostly about Putin and his vision of a Russian Empire and the role of Ukraine within it. He is a sick man trying to extend the boundaries and assert the power of his country at any cost. The support for him as a president in Russia is weakening because the economic situation has been deteriorating in Russia. Putin is lying to his people about his motives for invasion in Ukraine.

people smiling and hugging on a ledge in front of a building

Vitaliia (second from right), with her parents and their friends, returning from vacation in Zakarpattia in summer 2004. (Photo courtesy of Vitaliia Yaremko)

I think Putin is angry that Ukraine developed in a completely different trajectory than Russia, in the sense that the Ukrainian identity is flourishing. Ukrainian media, fashion and music are growing, and the products are beautiful. I love Ukrainian music. Ukrainians have a lot of startups and new businesses that are competitive in the world arena. Ukrainians value democracy and do not put up with presidents lying to their people. Ukraine was on an uphill trajectory before Russia started invasion under false pretenses, despite the war in eastern Ukraine that began in 2014.

Honestly, to some extent, it’s a miracle that the Ukrainian spirit has survived generations of suppression in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Ukrainians always survive. But today, they need the help of each other and the international community. Putin must be punished for his crimes against the Ukrainian people.

three people dressed in ponchos smile and pose for a selfie

Vitaliia hiking with her parents during her last visit to Ukraine in summer 2021. (Photo courtesy of Vitaliia Yaremko)

Ukraine can be supported physically, economically and politically. Physical support includes supporting the Ukrainian army and humanitarian organizations. Governments of allying countries can provide military, financial and humanitarian aid. Individuals from all over the world can make donations. Economically, imposing additional sanctions against Russia will deplete its war funds faster. Each company that stops providing its services to Russia will make Russians less prone to tolerate inhumane actions of Putin’s regime, and it will weaken his power from within.

Fairness and rule of law should prevail. In these difficult, horrific times, I am more proud than ever to be Ukrainian. I am proud that my country stands by its democratic values and resists Putin’s aggression, and I believe Ukraine will succeed. I am immensely grateful to everyone who is helping us to succeed.”

Here is a list of resources, recommended by Yaremko, that includes a range of ways to support Ukraine, from signing petitions and joining protests to donating to humanitarian causes and hosting refugees.