“The war has taught me how infinitely precious life is”

Students on their future plans

21-02-2024 · Interview

Teona Ochihava, fresh from a bachelor’s degree in law in Kyiv, had her sights set on a career as a prosecutor in the Ukrainian capital. And Maksym Tovstolis was supposed to spend the following three years or so studying at Chernihiv Polytechnic National University, where he had just started a degree in computer engineering. But their lives and future plans took an unexpected turn when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine exactly two years ago this week.

“I went to bed on an ordinary Wednesday evening, only to wake up at 4 AM to the sound of bombs exploding nearby”, recalls the now 23-year-old Ochihava, describing the night of the Russian invasion. She could see everything from the balcony of her parents’ home on the outskirts of Kyiv. “Flashes of light, people panicking in the streets. It was completely unexpected. I was in shock, but my parents helped me stay calm. They’d been in a situation like this before – in the early 1990s, they fled Georgia after heavy bombings.”

Ochihava and her parents ended up staying in their house for a month before fleeing to Poland by car. “We were reluctant to leave, holding onto the hope that the war would be over quickly. It was particularly difficult for my parents, having to flee a country for the second time after living there for thirty years.”

In Chernihiv, 150 kilometres north of Kyiv, the decision to leave wasn’t an easy one either, explains the now 19-year-old Tovstolis. “My father believed that NATO would rush to our aid, but I was less optimistic. History tells us that wars often last much longer than a few weeks.” Even so, Tovstolis stayed for almost a month in a city becoming increasingly surrounded by Russian troops. “They bombed Chernihiv, gradually destroying the city and its infrastructure. We were cut off from water and gas, even as outside temperatures dropped to minus 20 degrees Celsius. We took refuge in our neighbours’ bomb shelter with a space heater. Whenever the dogs began to bark, we knew there was an incoming air raid. We felt death coming closer and closer.”

But fleeing wasn’t a simple matter. “The Russians fired on all vehicles leaving the city, including civilian cars. We eventually escaped by car with people who knew the area well, taking muddy paths and country roads. We were lucky to reach the capital alive.” From Kyiv, Tovstolis boarded a train to Poland. Being a minor, he was allowed to leave the country.

McDonald’s

After a brief stay in Poland, both Ochihava and Tovstolis found themselves in an unfamiliar city called Maastricht. “When we were offered the chance to come to the Netherlands, we thought, ‘Why not?’” says Ochihava. “It’s a free and liberal country where everyone has equal opportunities. And I still feel that way now, two years later. I feel safe here. The language, though…” She laughs. “I want to learn Dutch; it would simply be disrespectful not to. Even if it’s not easy.” In Dutch, she adds, “But komt goed (I’ll get there).”

Maastricht even had a surprise in store for Ochihava – a university with a law faculty. “One sunny day, I was strolling through the city when I spotted the Faculty of Law sign. ‘That’s what I need’, I thought. In Ukraine, I’d planned to get a master’s degree in my field, and it turned out I could pursue one here.” But once again, language was a problem: her English wasn’t good enough. She spent a year brushing up her English on her own. In the meantime, she worked at McDonald’s. “At first, I thought, ‘What am I even doing here?’ But a job is a job. And I had lots of international colleagues, which helped me improve my English.”

After eight tries, she finally passed the language test required for enrolment at UM last August. “I was so relieved.” Currently enrolled in a pre-master’s programme, she hopes to start the master’s degree in Forensics, Criminology and Law in the upcoming academic year. “It’s challenging, partly because of the language and because I miss some background. Everything takes me at least twice as long as other students. But I’m very motivated, and grateful for UM’s support and the tuition fee discount [students from Ukraine pay the same tuition fees as Dutch students rather than the much higher fees for non-EU students, ed.]. I couldn’t have done it otherwise.”

Fight for Europe

Tovstolis also started studying at UM this academic year, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science at the Faculty of Science and Engineering (FSE). “It’s quite similar to the programme I was studying in Ukraine. I actually continued my studies online from the Netherlands for eighteen months, but it wasn’t the same. I wanted to be a ‘real’ student again.” So far, he hasn’t regretted his decision. “I’ve made a lot of new friends.”

Does he ever talk to them about the situation in Ukraine? “My classmates know there’s a war, but most of them don’t know the specifics of what’s going on in my country. The news reports the number of deaths, but not the suffering behind the statistics. I’ve also noticed that some Dutch people don’t seem to realise that this war is a fight for Europe. It would be good if there was more awareness. I wonder if people would still vote for the same political parties, for example.”

The beauty of clouds

How do Ochihava and Tovstolis see their own futures? No idea, they say. Neither of them has made any plans for the future since the Russian invasion. After all, everything can change in an instant. They haven’t thought beyond completing their studies. Would they like to go back to Ukraine at some point? “That’s a tough question”, says Ochihava. “Part of me wants to go back, but I’m starting to like it here too. I’ve been living here for two years now, becoming more and more integrated in Dutch society.” Besides, after obtaining her master’s degree, she would like to pursue a career in criminology – and the International Criminal Court happens to be based right here in the Netherlands. “I’d love to work there. It would be amazing to work on a case involving the Russian invasion of Ukraine.”

Tovstolis would also like to stay in the Netherlands for the time being. “This war won’t end anytime soon. I’d be willing to help my country from a distance, from the Netherlands, using the skills I’ve learnt at university. But for now, I just want to live a normal life without constant fear of terror and death.”

The main thing the war has taught him, he says, is “how infinitely precious life is. It really changed me as a person. I no longer lie awake at night worrying about things I used to think were very important, like getting a bad grade on a test. And I appreciate the little things in life so much more. The beauty of the clouds, the taste of food – those kinds of things mean so much to me now.”

 

Future plans

In this series, Observant interviews students about their plans for the future – their hopes, fears, and uncertainties. This week, exactly two years after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a special edition in which two Ukrainian students tell how the war changed their futures.

Photos: Ellen Oosterhof

Categories: news_top, People
Tags: future plans,ukraine,refugees,russian invasion,war,law,computer engineering,students,instagram

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