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"I Left from My Country"

How one student journeyed from Ukraine to St Andrews

Tymoffii Donets — a first-year Social Anthropology and Film Studies student — left his native Ukraine on 7 March, 2022. He has not returned. 

“It is still really hard to process what happened over the past one and a half years,” he said. “There will be no peace.”

He spent his early childhood in Odesa, before moving to the country's capital Kyiv at six. He spent most of his life there. 

In 2017, Tymoffi and his family moved to Irpin in the Kyiv region where he attended secondary school and lived until Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, 2022.

“The war completely changed our lives,” said Donets. “Anyone could die because a rocket may fall down on their house and destroy everything.”

Ukraine has a long history of conflict with Russia. Since the 2014 invasion of the Crimean Peninsula — a territory gifted to Ukraine by the Soviet Union — Putin has gradually seized the Donbas region. 

Prior to Putin’s announced invasion, Donets recalled being in “a condition of uncertainty.” “I was reading about all the depressed conferences of world leaders.” He added, “it was an intense moment for the whole world.”

In 1991, Ukraine held a referendum in which 92 per cent of the population voted in favour of independence. Most of the world recognises Ukraine’s independence  Russia does not. According to Putin,“Russia was robbed.” 

Donets feels that Putin’s rhetoric has a systematic impact on Russia’s perception of Ukraine. “It's a part of Russian culture,” he said. “It's been developed over centuries.”

“The way information is presented in the Russian language is completely different from the way it is presented in Ukrainian,” Donets noted. “For the past 10 years, the Russian language would present Ukrainian history. I think it formed a false narrative about what Ukraine truly is.”

The night of the invasion, Russian forces approached from Belarus — not far from Irpin. After an unsuccessful call with the police, Tymoffii and his mother went into a safety bunker. 

“At one moment we heard a big explosion in the forest in front of our house,” he said. “I understood that I could be killed.”

On 7 March, 2022 he and his mother left Ukraine: “My mother and I decided, ‘Let's go. There is war happening’.”

They headed west on the Zhytomyr Highway along with countless other families in packed vehicles. “Everyone was leaving,” Donets recalled. “Everyone was scared.”

On their journey, Donets and his mother got stuck in traffic. They heard explosions and gunshots, he said — the war was following them. 

“We couldn’t escape,” said Donets, “there [was] forest all around us and there [were] gunshots so close.” 

Finally, they reached his grandfather’s home close to the Polish and western borders, before making a three-week move to Wroclaw, Poland. Donets thought he would return to Ukraine shortly thereafter — until they relocated to Marktoberdorf, Germany. 

His “confidence disappeared” at the news of Russia’s invasion of his native region. “I remember my mother crying,” said Donets. “We hoped something would be left from our house, but we didn't know.”

He realised he wouldn’t return home for a long time, he said. “I started to consider the long-term perspective of staying abroad.” His stepfather — who still remains in Ukraine — suggested that Donets consider moving to Scotland. 

Via the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme, Donets applied for a visa and was accepted on 29 June, 2022. “It was quite a risky decision,” Donets commented. “I will live here and try, building up step by step.” 

After spending August with a host family in the Scottish borders, Donets moved to Glasgow to obtain his High National Certificate. Tymoffii stated he feels he “could do anything here.”

Then, he discovered St Andrews, initially attracted because of a sanctuary scholarship. “I really feel supported here,” said Donets. “Especially at St. Andrews, due to all the processes arranged by the university.” 

He said that St Andrews provides him with “incredible support.” The university subsidises his accommodation, as well as daily expenses. 

Yet, Donets said he still feels “an isolation from Ukrainian culture.” Donets attributes this to the language barrier. “Language is an important part of identity,” he commented.

Even though St Andrews also provides English support classes, transitioning languages remains a constant struggle, he said. “Still, it’s really hard for me to adapt to the language,” said Donets. “I can’t express myself in the full potential of what I am thinking.”

While living in Odessa, he spoke Russian. Now he prefers Ukrainian — a decision that acts as a form of resistance. Tymoffii describes the significance of small children speaking his native language. “They only understand Ukrainian and don't speak Russian,” he said. “It's something symbolic.” 

Despite the fact that St Andrews provides Donets with opportunity, it’s not quite home, he said. “I left from my country. I don’t have a permanent place to live.” 

But Donets said that he “knew that [he] would not be alone.” At St Andrews, he has come across a community of Ukrainian students, as well as staff members. 

Moving forward, Donets hopes for the end of the war. Even in St Andrews, the memories of his journey continue to haunt him, he said. In his university accommodation he can hear the jets at RAF Leuchars, acting as a solemn reminder of the conflict he escaped. “Still, I don’t fully feel safe.” 

Even at St Andrews, Donets hopes “to preserve this connection [he has] with Ukraine.” He does this through his photography and film-making, he shared.

Donets documented his journey from Ukraine, Poland, and Germany in a series of photographs titled On My Way’, and his short film Outlander — consisting of footage taken on his phone — screened at the 2023 Ayrshire Film Festival in Scotland. 

He said that, while acclimating to life in a new country, he does “want to introduce [Ukrainian culture] to [his] children” someday.

“The voices of Ukrainians have become more powerful,” said Donets. “Now we can feel more independent and confident in our future.”

Photo: Tymoffii Donets

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