As war rages in Ukraine, the ripples touch even Wyoming

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2 Sep, 2022
As war rages in Ukraine, the ripples touch even Wyoming

Members of the UW community rally for Ukraine during an indoor event Wednesday.

Six months ago, Russia invaded Ukraine. The invasion inspired fierce resistance by the people of Ukraine and touched people throughout the western world.

University of Wyoming economics professor Sasha Skiba is watching the war from afar, rationing his attention between the war in his homeland and his responsibilities as department head.

His parents are still in their home city, Lviv, in northern Ukraine.

“My dad said in the beginning, it was very, very nerve-wracking,” Skiba said. “Because every time it would start up – especially during the times where the Russian military was shooting all over Ukraine, shooting rockets all over Ukraine – he literally said every time the air raid siren goes off, you start fearing for your life. And when it stops, you feel like you’ve won the lottery.”

When the war began – the entire country, even the capital, Kyiv – was a target for Russian missiles. Now, the fighting has moved south, where Ukrainian and Russian troops have been fighting for months. Skiba’s dad, like many Ukrainians, is able to go to work – but that doesn’t mean they’re in the clear or safe from rocket attacks.

August 24 was Ukrainian Independence Day, and Skiba’s parents heard the air raid sirens six different times.

“Every time he goes to work or a business trip around the area, he said he says goodbye to his wife, to my mom,” Skiba said. “And part of the reason is this uncertainty. It seems the entire country is under possible attack at any given point in time.”

Skiba is not the only Ukrainian following the war from far-distant Wyoming. UW student Anastasiia Pereverten spent the summer hosting fundraisers, lectures and film screenings, staffing information booths, and getting books about the history of Ukraine into the campus library.

She’s hoping to familiarize Americans with her homeland and to counter Russian misinformation about Ukraine.

“It’s not just about expanding your outlook,” she said. “It’s about understanding deeply what’s going on right now.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin has justified the invasion as an attempt to reclaim a part of Russia’s “spiritual space” – suggesting that places once part of the Russian empire or the Soviet Union belong within Russia.

Pereverten is confronting this claim by demonstrating a strong and unique Ukrainian identity. To that end, she’s also been talking to U.S. museums about presenting Ukrainian history and art as distinctly Ukrainian, and not just Russian.

“Unfortunately, for many years or decades, or maybe even centuries, Russia had this claim of ownership for every cultural phenomenon or figure that’s been born in Ukraine or any other country that used to be a part of the Russian empire,” she said.

For Pereverten, all of this is what she can do for Ukraine from so far away. At the outset of the war, balancing everything was sometimes overwhelming. But Pereverten received some helpful mental health guidance and was told that her anxiety is rational.

“There’s no way you wouldn’t be anxious,” Pereverten said she was told. “Accepting this fact kind of fixed everything for me. Because if my anxiety doesn’t impact anything but my productivity, and I can’t get rid of this anxiety, I should try to just negotiate with it, just deal with it somehow.”

Pereverten is still a full-time student and even works a campus job now.

In the days following the outbreak of the war, UW graduate Megan Neville found herself a refugee displaced by war.

After graduating from UW, Neville moved to Europe, where she fell in love with a Ukrainian. They were living in Ukraine at the time, but the couple was actually vacationing in Thailand when Russian missiles started pelting Ukraine last winter.

Since then, they’ve hopped around Europe, staying with friends for weeks or months at a time, unable to return home. Neville said the forced globetrotting is not as fun as it sounds.

“It was honestly really hard. It was really, really exhausting,” she said. “You have to carry everything with you and you just don’t feel like you have any stability or community. We just felt like none of it was home and we didn’t want to put our roots down anywhere because our families weren’t there.”

The couple was eventually able to land in the United States thanks to the Uniting for Ukraine program. The program lets Americans – like Neville’s family – sponsor Ukrainian refugees and streamline the otherwise lengthy process of coming to America.

Their home city in Ukraine is far from the active fighting, but the war has still touched Neville and her partner.

“A lot of people we know have joined the military, including some of my colleagues,” she said. “Two of them died recently, which was really hard. One of them was a senior Java engineer who was at the top of his field, but he felt like he had to do something for his country.”

Like Neville, Nick Piazza of Cody is another American with deep ties to Ukraine. The investor has spent a significant amount of time there, financing some of the country’s biggest industries, like information technology. He’s gotten to watch the country modernize in the years since the fall of the Soviet Union, and – until the outbreak of war – split his time between Ukraine and Wyoming.

“I had left Ukraine about a week before everything started,” Piazza said. “It was an incredible shock to see that all crashing down.”

Piazza started investing in Ukraine’s defense – funding and helping other people fund everything from body armor to beer bottles for Molotov cocktails. Then he helped recruit fighters.

An off-the-cuff comment in a local paper about helping people get over to Ukraine to fight spread among ex-special forces and military communities.

“At first, we thought we were going to get a lot of people with big hearts, but not a lot of experience,” Piazza said. “We didn’t want to dump someone in Ukraine who maybe was kind of full of desire and his heart was in the right place, but then put them in a dangerous situation that they weren’t ready for.”

But Piazza said there were actually several people with the right training and experience who reached out. He said he helped 12 fighters get to Ukraine, including two Wyoming residents.

Piazza has also helped people go the other way – sponsoring the wives and children of Ukrainian fighters, who are seeking refuge through the United for Ukraine program mentioned before.

Just as the war has affected people all over the world, UW student Anastasiia Pereverten said the result of the war will also be felt far beyond the borders of Ukraine.

“Supporting Ukraine by either familiarizing yourself with its history or donating is a part of everybody’s responsibility right now,” she said. “Because living in the outcomes of letting it slip will be way more horrific.”