Editor’s Note: Since posting this story, other news stories with Dariia include features in the Mankato Free Press and the University’s TODAY magazine.
By LENNY KOUPAL, CSU Communications Coordinator
In a recent conversation, Dariia Hozhenko’s mother talked about the red sky she was seeing.
It wasn’t the sky Ukrainians associate with a beautiful sunset but rather the night sky lit up by shellings in their western region of Ukraine outside Lviv.
Dariia, one of two Ukrainian students currently enrolled at Minnesota State Mankato, is a graduate student from Ivano-Frankove, an urban settlement in western Ukraine about 20 kilometers from Lviv, the sixth-largest city in Ukraine with a population of 717,500.
Latest news reports Russian missile strikes near Lviv as the food supply system for Ukrainians is falling apart from constant shelling.
‘I truly believe I need to keep going, you know. Keep studying, keep teaching, keep doing something, keep communicating, collecting information and acting, you know, acting, acting, acting. I think that will work out somehow.‘– DARIIA HOZHENKO
To assist, Dariia currently started a campus campaign directing people to the Ukrainian Community Center, a Minneapolis organization providing humanitarian aid to fellow Ukrainians.
She does that while staying focused on her master’s in physics, leading undergrads as a physics lab teaching assistant, and, of course, remaining in contact with her mother, Olga, when possible through broken communications.
“I’m from the west of Ukraine and all the messengers are working.” Dariia said earlier this week. “Sometimes it’s hard to hear my mom, you know, sometimes I can’t catch what’s she’s saying because of the connection.”
Still, she feels some relief in hearing her mother’s voice. Others seeking to reach eastern Ukraine have gone more than two weeks without connecting with family and friends.
“I know that in the east it’s just a disaster over there,” she said.
An only child, Dariia was raised by her mother who she defines as a very active, “super-wise woman” who instilled a love for poetry, singing, dancing and the crafts in her daughter.
“She did all possible to put correct values inside of me,” Dariia said.
After initial attacks in and around Kyiv, hundreds of thousands fled the capital city to the Lviv region just 70 kilometers (43 miles) from the Polish border.
Dariia said her mother has opened her home to a couple fleeing Kyiv.
“They are living in our house, but they are total strangers for us. A lot of people moved so we are trying to help as much as we can,” she said.
Earning her bachelor’s and first master’s degree in Civil Protection from National Aviation University in Kyiv, Dariia is schooled and trained in providing safety and security largely to assure safe operation for corporations and entities. A versatile degree similar to Civil Defense preparation, it also aims at protection from biological, chemical, military and terrorist acts.
“It’s exactly what our country needs right now,” she said.
Dariia also holds her diploma–similar to an associate’s degree–in commodity science and commercial activity.
“It’s kind of connected to civil protection. For example if it’s a war, you need the food. You need to have it somewhere or hide it. It should not be expired. So you need to check all of that.”
As her homeland is under attack, Dariia speaks with pride about the land, people and leadership.
“Oh, I love Ukraine. When someone says Ukraine, I have such a warm feeling. I just love this country.”
In the U.S., Dariia sees some stereotypes that compare Ukrainians to Russians. Recent developments show a distinct difference.
“We are not similar at all. Cause when women are hiding with the children, Russians are crying and saying their life is destroyed because Instagram closed,” Dariia said.
She, as with most Ukrainians, didn’t see an invasion as imminent.
“And yeah, we were feeling that something can happen, but if to be honest, even me, I didn’t believe ’til the last minute that it can happen in 21st century; that a country can start the military invasion to peaceful country that never wanted a war,” Dariia said. “We just want to live our independent, free life. I just can’t believe on it. How is it possible? In our world, how?”
Dariia said she learned of the invasion before her mother did back in Ukraine. Much of the country was still asleep when the early morning invasion began.
“I called my mom and she picked up the phone and I’m like, ‘Mom, Russia attacked Ukraine.’ And she’s like, ‘What?’ She didn’t know. It was 5 a.m. All the country’s sleeping.”
Dariia applied her skills and knowledge to help at home. She instructed her mother on how to store water and food. She also told her to gather up important documents and the family dog, Charli, and shelter in place in their basement.
As the invasion unfolds, Dariia said Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is exactly what her generation voted into office. He wasn’t someone driven by politics.
“My generation chose him. I voted for him,” she said. “We just wanted someone who loves Ukraine–who is feeling the traditions, who has the same blood as we have, who feels that warm when talking about Ukraine. He’s the face of the times and he’s hero.”
Inspired by her president and her people, Dariia said she could not just sit back and watch in America.
“I can say I’m fine. Of course, I feel disappointed and scared about my family but I truly believe that cries or depressed will not help. It never helps,” Dariia said. “I truly believe I need to keep going, you know. Keep studying, keep teaching, keep doing something, keep communicating, collecting information and acting, you know, acting, acting, acting. I think that will work out somehow.”
Still, Dariia tears up and pauses while reflecting on the innocent victims of attacks that are spurring charges of war crimes.
“I’m trying to share information that we really need humanitarian aid. They are killing children–18 months old–you know, it’s a baby.
“I’m just trying to do everything that I can, you know, to ask for any help—maybe not for help—for information,” she added. “You can be super strong if you have a lot of information and you can make your own choice on what to believe or not.”
As she prepares for class, Dariia wants to leave behind two thoughts. The first reflects on a favorite quote from Nelson Mandela.
“‘Education is the most powerful weapon that can change the world.’ Information, education and real thinking,” she said.
“And the last thing, ‘What is your superpower, Dariia?’…”
She asks the question knowing her answer comes from the heart…from the blood running through her veins…from the truth that withstands all opposition.