A Warm Welcome in Rescuer City

In the midst of war, students, faculty, and alumni associated with Sewanee’s Russian Department traveled to the Ukraine/Poland border to assist refugees in any way they could, including translation services and a healthy dose of human connection.

In spring 2022, A Ukrainian flag hung from the window of Kamilla Haidaienko's room in Benedict Hall.

In spring 2022, A Ukrainian flag hung from the window of Kamilla Haidaienko's room in Benedict Hall.

In the spring of 2022, as Russian forces began taking over large parts of eastern Ukraine, quickly consolidating control of air space in the country and bombing and threatening the capital city of Kyiv, Ukrainian flags began popping up on bumper stickers, yard signs, and T-shirts around Sewanee. For many people, there was a vague sense that something bad was happening and a strong inclination to wish it were not.

For Kamilla Haidaienko, C’25, feelings about the invasion were much more immediate. Haidaienko is a native of Ukraine, and at the time of the invasion, her family lived in Odessa, which suffered heavy damage from Russian bombardments during the invasion.  “War came very suddenly into my home and made the separation from my family feel a thousand times longer and lonelier,” she wrote. “On campus we did as much as it was possible: arranged fundraisers, spread awareness, organized educational and spiritual events. But as the days went by, I observed the storm of support and care die down until the Ukrainian flag on my dorm window was all that was left.” 

A group from the Sewanee community raised $12,000 through a GoFundMe site to travel to the Ukrainian border in early summer and to offer help in the midst of a growing refugee crisis. Haidaienko, along with three other Sewanee students, two Sewanee alumni, and Professor of Russian Mark Preslar met in Krakow, Poland, and took a train to the border town of Przemyśl, a city that in July President Volodymyr Zelensky named a “Rescuer City.” 

For Mark Preslar, as with Hadaienko, feelings about the conflict were anything but vague. “What happened last spring and is happening now is just a tragedy,” he says. “That part of the world represents such a beautiful culture—rich literary traditions and arts, mathematics, and physics. The war is a betrayal of that beauty.” Inspired by a Sewanee family that traveled to Ukraine in the spring to help out, Preslar helped lead the group of Russian speakers to do what they could. “I knew I had to do something, and we had a really great group who could help out.”

While the University discouraged the group from entering Ukraine itself for safety reasons, the team found that its energy was much needed at the border—the point of transition for people fleeing violence. All seven travelers speak Russian, two speak Ukrainian, and another speaks a little Armenian. That language proficiency turned out to be an important asset.

“It is really surprising how important translators were at the border,” says Preslar. “People were streaming in from Ukraine, trying to escape the violence, and surprisingly few Ukrainians knew Polish and vice-versa.” The Sewanee team pitched in, working multiple shifts a day and providing comfort to people who were clearly in distress. 

The Sewanee team, including Russian Professor Mark Preslar (right) at the Tesco Refugee Center in Przemyśl, Poland.

The Sewanee team, including Russian Professor Mark Preslar (right) at the Tesco Refugee Center in Przemyśl, Poland.

Upon arrival in Przemysl, the team registered with the Make a Difference Foundation, which operated the Tesco Refugee Center staffed by volunteers from several countries. Tesco may sound like an acronym for some multinational relief group, but it is actually the name of a megastore that happened to have enough space to house refugees in cots. At Tesco, refugees began to sort themselves into potential countries of destination—Denmark, England, Poland, Germany. “The Germans were really doing it right,” says Preslar. “They would meet with a refugee family and say, ‘We have a place for you to live.’ While there were a lot of countries there trying to process the enormous number of refugees, none of the rest could match the certainty of the Germans.”

After a few days at Tesco, the Sewanee team learned that there was a pronounced need for translators at the Przemyśl railway station, where many refugees first entered the city. For the quickly uprooted in a foreign land, travel was scary. “We helped channel people to the refugee center, sometimes helping them find local accommodations, food, toys, books or rides,” says Preslar. “Often we helped the many elderly people or mothers with children not only figure out what to do next, but we arranged transport, found accommodations, or carried luggage for them as well.”

Perhaps the biggest contribution made by the Sewanee team was in these encounters with people where the basic humanity of both the refugee and volunteer was revealed—authentic personal connection across experience and circumstance. One Sewanee volunteer purchased a stuffed animal to give away and found a child with Down syndrome who reminded him of his little brother. “I gave the little stuffed elephant to the boy who looked like my little brother, and he was so happy. His face lit up with joy. He jumped around a little bit and gave me a hug.” Another Sewanee volunteer whose family had come from Armenia identified a refugee as Armenian by the music he was listening to. The two men shared conversation for over an hour, with the refugee much relieved that an Armenian American had come across the globe to help him.

After several such encounters, Haidaienko summed up her feelings.  “I am filled with inexplicable grief, but also with an even stronger pride and admiration toward my people. The horrors they went through are inconceivable and even though I am Ukrainian, I catch myself thinking that my own struggles are nothing compared to anyone who is physically in Ukraine. The least one can do to understand them is to listen to their stories, to talk to them face to face and you might catch a glimpse of their experiences reflected in their eyes. And the least we can do to help is to share their burden the way our group did in Przemyśl.”

The GoFundMe campaign covered the cost of sending Sewanee students, alumni, and faculty to help. It also provided funds to purchase books, medical supplies, and other necessities for a family resource center in Ukraine, which will also receive several thousand dollars in cash from the group. “We are really grateful to more than 100 people who contributed to our work and the opportunity for us to be at a place where we could provide help in a precise moment where that help was needed,” Haidaienko says.

Next Steps

While Przemyśl has certainly earned the nickname “the Rescuer City,” the refugee crisis is widespread and significant, both internally in Ukraine and with emigration from Ukraine. Russia also faces a significant challenge of emigration, as well. “A lot of people have left Russia because they are appalled at the actions of their government,” says Preslar. “More left because of their fear of being conscripted to fight in the war.” 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sewanee Russian Department organized a Summer in Russia program every two years so that Russian majors could have a significant experience in the country they were studying. The department has been effective in preparing students for post-graduate success, and its graduates are overrepresented in the list of Sewanee’s Fulbright Fellows. The Summer in Russia program certainly contributes to that success. 

“I don’t see going to Russia any time soon,” says Preslar. But that does not mean travel is out of the question. The destination for many refugees has been the Caucasus, that ancient land between the Black and Caspian seas. Preslar is increasingly interested in travel to Georgia, an area of fascinating history with one of the oldest wine-making traditions in the world. Sewanee is not finished sharing the humanity of Ukrainian refugees, with potential new encounters, one hopes, to come after the conclusion of the war soon.