War in Ukraine: Manchester conference offers support and community for Ukrainian students in the UK

Representatives from over 20 UK universities came to Manchester on 28 October for the first ever Ukrainian Students’ Conference.

As Russia’s war in Ukraine enters its eighth month, Ukrainian students across the UK have come together to celebrate the growing community of young Ukrainians working to support each other and the war efforts back home.

On Friday (28 October), students from over 20 different universities gathered at The University of Manchester for the first ever Ukrainian Students’ Conference.

Before the war, there were very few student groups specifically for Ukrainians. The University of Manchester’s society was only formed in March 2022 in response to the full-scale invasion that had begun one month earlier.

Helped by the longer-established Polish Society, their aim was to join the humanitarian efforts, both for the refugees fleeing to the UK from Ukraine and for the Ukrainian Armed Forces back at home. But as the war escalated, the society has proven to be an important source of comfort for the students, many of whom still have family in Ukraine.

The society’s president Makar Mizevych, a second year finance student from Donetsk, said: “Now it’s about the idea of getting Ukrainian students together.

The University of Manchester Ukrainian Society president Makar Mizevych and vice president Jan Szkulepa. Credit: Sofia Fedeczko/Manchester World

“I think when we have some place where we can talk to each other, we can feel that we are home. Most of us, unfortunately, haven’t been home for months, and it’s always great to meet people from your own country, exchange experiences and do something great together.”

The event featured keynote speeches from prominent Ukrainian journalist Olga Tokariuk and professor of Ukrainian studies at University College London (UCL) Andrew Wilson, as well as a panel discussion with Ukrainian alumni of British universities.

Journalist Maria Romanenko, who studied at Leeds University and has been based in Stockport since the beginning of the war, was among the panellists.

She wrote on Twitter: “When I was at the University of Leeds, I was one of just three Ukrainians studying there. Nobody would agree to establish a society for three people so I co-founded the Eastern European Society. We had members from Ukraine, Bulgaria, Lithuania, and other places.

“Now, Ukrainian students have a representative body with the establishment of the Ukrainian Students Union (a union of Ukrainian societies in more than 20 UK universities). This body is of immense importance when Ukrainian students need support and a place to socialise.”

One of the students benefiting from the newly-established Ukrainian society in Manchester is 17-year-old Maksym Karpliuk, a first-year electrical engineering student. He is from Irpin, a town just outside Kyiv that was briefly occupied by Russia in the early days of war. As the invading troops withdrew, images of the town’s destruction and mass graves made headline news all over the world.

Student Maksym Karpliuk, wearing a traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirt, at the first Ukrainian Students’ Conference in Manchester. Credit: Sofia Fedeczko/Manchester World

Most of his family have remained there, but he also has family in Zaporizhia –  an area which is currently occupied.

Speaking about his family in Ukraine, Maksym said: “It’s very tough. It’s very hard to communicate with people in occupied territories. Not only are the connections really unstable, but also it’s under constant surveillance.

“There are many cases where people were listening to the conversations and then taking people from their homes, either beating them up or some people just straight up disappeared and we do not know where they are.”

Destroyed houses on April 18, 2022 in Irpin, Ukraine. (Photo by Alexey Furman/Getty Images)

At the conference on Friday, he was glad to be around other young people in his situation.

He said: “A lot of students have organised the Ukrainian society, which resulted in the first Ukrainian students’ conference, so things are getting much better, because the students and Ukrainians in Manchester in general are organising such events for local Ukrainians to meet, exchange ideas.”

Masters student Valeriia Sobko was also grateful for the opportunity to spend time with other Ukrainians. Simply being able to speak Ukrainian was comforting to the 21-year-old, whose family are also from a town outside Kyiv near Irpin.

She said: “It’s really nice when you can talk Ukrainian all day. Sometimes I really miss it, because even though there are a lot of Ukrainians at this university, in my subject, we don’t have any. I miss my language and people from my city. There are quite a lot of people who are from my district even, so we have a lot in common.”

Masters student Valeriia Sobko at the first Ukrainian Students’ Conference in Manchester. Credit: Sofia Fedeczko/Manchester World

The business student explained that, as well as financial support with fees and living expenses, they receive mental health support from the university. She says that it is particularly hard dealing with university life on top of the stress caused by unfolding events in Ukraine.

She said: “Sometimes, when I need to look for jobs and study at the same time, all my brain can do is think about my parents, about Ukraine. It’s quite difficult to focus. Sometimes I really miss everyone.”

Planning for the future is difficult for these students, who do not know when they will be able to return and what state their country will be in when they do.

Valeriia, however, remains optimistic. She said: “Personally, for me, I really hope that I will come back to Ukraine some day and build my future there.

“I’m planning to stay in Ukraine and have my future life there, so I hope that it will be possible after our victory, and I am sure that this victory will be soon. I have no doubts about that.”