An Invisible Thread of Unity 

Olga Baron, UNC’s executive director of Global Engagement, shares her thoughts as a Ukrainian experiencing war from a distance and finding community amidst the struggle. 

Today marks 210 days of Russia’s “three-day” war against Ukraine. Since then, every day brings sadness, pain and hope. Six months in, waking up to the news of more bombings, deaths and destruction in my home country make mornings the most dreadful time of my day. 

I was born and raised in Dnipro, the fourth largest city in Ukraine. My family’s story is very similar to many generations of Ukrainians who have suffered from cultural extermination, torture, famine, mass deportations and forced labor camps imposed by the Soviets and the Russians. 

My mother’s family comes from western Ukraine that was occupied first by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then Poland, then the USSR. During World War II, some of my relatives were members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. They fought for independent Ukraine and later immigrated to Canada and Argentina to escape tyranny. Others have been punished by forced deportation to labor camps in Siberia for simply being Ukrainian. 

My father’s family comes from the small town of Chystiakove (formerly known as Torez), in Donbas, in eastern Ukraine. The majority of the Donbas region has been occupied by the Russians for over eight years and is sadly known as the site of the MH17 plane crash in 2014. We have virtually no contact with my 82-year old aunt who lives under occupation, yet I do not give up hope that we will reunite one day. She is the oldest of five children who survived the 1932-1933 Holodomor and subsequent years of war and famine. Six of her siblings died from hunger. Her youngest brother is my dad.  

As a student of International Affairs and Law, I recognize these historical parallels and feel a deep connection to my cultural roots and generational ties that shape my Ukrainian identity. Since my family came to the U.S. as refugees years ago, it was always important to me to serve as a cultural ambassador and share knowledge about Ukraine. For most of my adult life in the U.S., I encountered many misunderstandings about Ukrainian culture, people and language. Saying that I was a Ukrainian seemed futile because it would get pigeonholed as “some kind of Russian.” My heritage was often dismissed and misunderstood. For many, I may have been the first or the only Ukrainian they have personally interacted with. Yet I always felt that those moments created opportunities to share a little bit of my homeland, my native language and rich Ukrainian traditions. Over the past few years, I have been a frequent speaker in local K-12 schools and in several history classes at UNC a valuable experience I deeply cherish.  

Today I can confidently say that such confusion will never exist again as the whole world observes Ukrainian’s strength, resilience and its fight for sovereignty and freedom. I am humbled every day in the presence of thousands of Ukrainians in the state of Colorado, and millions worldwide who are speaking up, helping, donating, supporting and doing all they can within their power to tell the world that Ukraine is worth supporting and fighting for. 

The war has united 20 million Ukrainians around the world — all of us are doing our part in an invisible thread of unity that spans continents. Ukraine has the eighth largest diaspora in the world. The U.S. is home to over one million Ukrainians; 11,000 live in Colorado. 

After the war started, I felt an outpouring of support from friends and colleagues offering their condolences and assistance. I was reconciling a peaceful day-to-day life here while processing images of destruction and death I couldn’t bear to see — but at the same time couldn’t stop myself from seeing. I felt emotionally paralyzed, trying to process the overwhelming magnitude of the tragedy of war and understand why the kindergarten and school I attended as a child had been bombed. 

About a dozen of my close family members have been directly impacted by the war — many volunteered to fight, some decided to go abroad seeking safety. My 75-year-old uncle was upset that he was unable to enlist in the territorial defense forces in his hometown of nearby Kyiv due to his age, and my father was ready to leave the U.S. and go fight in the war.  

I learned to channel intense feelings of survivor’s guilt into small tangible steps that can positively contribute to Ukraine’s victory. While directly supporting my family there and other Ukrainians I never met in person but got to know virtually by sheer coincidence, I have connected with local volunteers and non-governmental organizations on the ground, confident that my modest donations make a difference. I have been attending numerous concerts, virtual fundraisers, lectures and information sessions, bought supplies and helped ship them to Ukraine. And I am finally fulfilling my life-long dream of building a personal library of Ukrainian books. This is my way of connecting and contributing without having to say many words that bring me to tears to this day.  

I am proud to be a member of the UNC family and endlessly grateful to the university community for the incredible support and care shown to me and a student from Mariupol, Ukraine, who was studying English in our Intensive English Program when the war started. Her home city was turned into rubble, and she has been incredibly strong creating a new life for herself in the U.S.  

In mid-March, faculty and students from UNC’s College for Performing and Visual Arts (PVA) organized a fundraising concert and a silent auction. All proceeds went to a dedicated emergency fund created to support international students and scholars in crises and displaced by war, including those from Ukraine. With the support of UNC leadership and former Interim Provost Lisa Vollendorf, this dedicated fund created a sustainable framework that will help support international students and scholars from Ukraine and other countries ravaged by war to study or do research at UNC. This effort serves as a powerful example of remarkable generosity of spirit that makes our community very special and incredibly strong.

Later that same month, I was honored to represent UNC at the state capitol in a tribute to recognize Ukrainian students, faculty and staff from Colorado higher education institutions. During the tribute, the Colorado Senate presented attendees with a proclamation honoring Ukraine and its displaced peoples. The document stated the Senate’s support for and recognition of the sacrifice of Ukrainians fighting for a free country and recognized the relatives and those with ties to Ukraine who live in Colorado. The document also urged the Biden administration and NATO to provide as much military assistance as possible under the current circumstances. 

As I write this, the war rages on for the seventh month, and it is hard not to experience war fatigue and shift focus to other pressing issues. The war has put many things in perspective and reminded us of the price of freedom and the value of democracy that are paramount to the U.S. I am grateful for the unwavering UNC community support and want to pay tribute to all Ukrainians for their unbreakable spirit. Slava Ukraini!   

Editor’s Note: Baron wrote this article as UNC Magazine was in production late this summer, counting the days of the war since Feb. 24, 2022.