Northwestern University rallies around exchange students from Ukraine

EVANSTON, Ill. (WLS) -- The Northwestern University community has rallied around its exchange students from Ukraine as their families back home remain under attack by Russians.

Freshman chemistry major Inna Sokolenko is from Kyiv. This weekend her family drove 24 hours west to safety, for now.

"It was a surprise for all of us, and it is hard to believe that all the destruction is happening because we don't even have to come back to you in the summer," she said.

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She and other Ukrainian students have been overwhelmed with support. They hoped to raise $300 Sunday for Razom of Ukraine, a non-profit providing medical help to Ukrainian soldiers. They raised 10 times that amount.

"We kept almost crying at every donation that came in because we were like, these people are not Ukrainian, they don't know Ukrainians, yet they are still showing up and they are giving us kind words," said Sonya Voloboi, sophomore.

The lack of personal knowledge is balanced by longstanding fear of Russian expansionism for some. Alisher Juzgenbayev is a PhD candidate in political science, who remembered his home in Kazakhstan, which shares a history of Soviet-era colonialism and famine with Ukraine.

"It is very hard to rationalize it or it is very hard to push it away because it threatens the entire architecture of the West," he said.

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Electronic contributions poured in from others who said they are privileged.

"You feel so isolated from what is going on," said freshman Meena Sharma. "I personally wish I could help in any way, but it is just so devastating. Just, nobody should ever have to go through that."

While Ukrainian students are comforted by the support they're receiving from their peers, there's still anxiety that returns every time a news feed pings.

"Going to the dining hall and hearing people talk about classes or midterms or things they have going on in their day-to-day lives, and the only thing I can think of is, is my family alive right now, is the next bomb going to hit where they live, is my city currently being invaded?" Voloboi said. "How am I going to cope with this? It is an experience that is almost unimaginable for most Americans."

The Northwestern rock has been on campus for over a century, and has been the site of all kinds of celebrations and statements and political actions. There is apparently over an inch of paint on it and at this point at least there are no plans for the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag to be painted over anytime soon.
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