Future of Ukrainian Winthrop student uncertain as violence hits homeland

As unrest escalates between factions in Ukraine along the country’s border with Russia, uncertainty about the region’s stability leaves Winthrop University student Alina Sopizhuk concerned about her family.

The 20-year-old volleyball player from Donetsk recently returned to Rock Hill after visiting family this summer. Her home has changed, she says, as battles have become commonplace along Ukraine’s eastern border.

Donetsk made world news earlier this month when Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot down in the region, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew members. The city is a stronghold of pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists.

Once a beautiful, safe city, Sopizhuk said, Donetsk now looks more like a scene from a horror movie. Taking a break from college classes and volleyball practice at Winthrop, Sopizhuk returned to Ukraine in May to see “people just walking around the streets with guns and masks on their faces.”

Most members of her family have fled to live with friends in Crimea, a Russian-controlled peninsula along Ukraine’s southern border. Some of her friends have changed colleges or schools to avoid the most dangerous areas.

Over recent months, much of eastern Ukraine – where Sopizhuk was born and raised – has become a battleground for groups in conflict over the area’s economic and political ties. After a violent Ukrainian revolution earlier this year in the nation’s capital city of Kiev, Russian officials refused to acknowledge Ukraine’s temporary government.

Fighting over Ukraine’s efforts to strengthen ties to the European Union followed the revolution. Pro-Russia Ukrainians living in Donetsk eventually declared the eastern province a sovereign state, siding with Russian leaders who oppose Ukraine’s recently-signed trade agreement with the European Union.

Pro-Russia separatists have seized control of Donetsk’s government building, and fighting has ensued as the Ukrainian government attempts to regain command and bring a ceasefire to the city.

The constant protests and outbreaks of violence, Sopizhuk said, have forced her to reconsider plans to return home next year. She plans to graduate from Winthrop in May with a degree in international business.

Her family is unsure whether they’ll go back to Donetsk, she said, and her parents already are looking for a new school in Crimea for her 13-year-old brother.

Sopizhuk is conflicted over the pro-Russia movement and the life she knows in Ukraine. The two countries have similar cultures, particularly in eastern Ukraine where Russian is often the residents’ first language.

Still, she says, “I was born in Ukraine; I love my country.”

Sopizhuk declined to speak in-depth about her political views or her expectations of the conflict. With tensions in the region high, she said, many people fear for their safety if they voice political beliefs.

Most Ukrainians, she said, hope a peaceful resolution comes soon. Ukraine historically has found itself on the sidelines of conflict and war around the world, she said.

She recalls watching television news about war – particularly the United States’ involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. War and civilian casualties have happened close to home, she said, but she always felt fortunate not to have much violence inside Ukraine.

“We’re not a rich country,” Sopizhuk remembers thinking, “but at least we never had a war.”

Winthrop men’s tennis coach Sergey Belov can relate to watching conflict unfold close to home. Belov, a recent Winthrop graduate who is from Russia, feels lucky that his family isn’t in immediate danger.

He has lived in Rock Hill since 2008, when he joined the Winthrop tennis team and enrolled as a business administration student. He has earned a master’s degree in business administration and was recently promoted to coach the tennis team.

Belov hasn’t paid much attention to recent issues in Ukraine, he says, but he hears news from his family and friends in Russia, where he last visited in January.

Hearing reports of planes’ being shot down and people being killed in the conflict in Ukraine is scary and sad, he said. His family lives in a city northwest of Moscow – far enough from the conflict to be safe, he said.

Belov hasn’t formed a strong opinion about Ukraine and Russia’s relations or what should happen with Ukraine’s political landscape, he says, because he doesn’t feel informed enough about the situation.

One thing he feels sure about is that most Ukrainians prefer peace over war and would rather see political change accomplished without violence. This year’s Ukrainian revolution unfolded after years of backlash against the government for alleged corruption.

Friends in Rock Hill often ask him questions about the conflict and Russia’s position on Ukraine, Belov says. He doesn’t feel comfortable speaking for his country because, like in Ukraine, there are diverse opinions and political beliefs in Russia.

Some people in Russia believe their political leaders’ actions are out of their control, anyway, Belov said.

Beyond placing blame on one country or political leader, he said, the more important conversation should be about the violence that is claiming innocent lives.

The fighting is about power and money, Sopizhuk said, and the constant threat to her loved ones in Ukraine is stressful.

Staying active at Winthrop, especially with the volleyball team, has helped keep her from being constantly overwhelmed by worry for her family’s safety. She talks to her parents every day, Sopizhuk said, but the situation weighs on her mind.

It’s harder, she said, knowing “there’s nothing I can do.”