To Survive and Rebuild: A Student Survival Story

Dana Krukovska’s story on how she survived the Russian Occupation in Ukraine

When the Russians invaded Ukraine on Feb, 24, 2022, Krukovska and her family “decided to stay home because they thought [the invasion wouldn’t] last for a long time.”

However, in April, the Russian military went into their city council and took complete control. The Russians were capturing city council members and holding them captive.

Krukovska and her family knew they needed to leave because Krukovska’s mother was the Head of the Department of Education in Kakhovka and her life was in danger.

On April 1, Krukovska and her family left their home and hid at a friend’s house.

“I even took my sim card out of my phone, and my parents did the same so that it was harder to find us,” Krukovska said. “We were trying to survive.”

They stayed hidden for 19 days without their phones and any source of news.

“I’ve never seen my mom cry so much, and my dad refused to talk. He was silent for days,” she said. “It was hard, really hard. I felt like I was a parent, and my parents were children.”

The Krukovska family decided to flee their city on April 19, each taking a small bag filled with clothes.

“It was really hard for me because I didn’t want to leave,” she said. “I was really dedicated to my hometown.”

They had to leave behind her extended family because it was too difficult to take everyone with them.

“I didn’t want to leave my grandparents there, but I knew that I needed to do that because my parents were suffering really bad. It [was] the only way to help them recover a little bit,” she said.

Before Krukovska fled her hometown, she spent hours clearing off her phone of any trace of Ukraine.

“In occupation you need to clean your phone everyday by deleting Ukrainian symbols and pictures about Ukraine because if Russians check your phone and see those, then you could be killed or taken into captivity,” she said.

It took Krukovska and her family five hours to get to Kherson, which normally would take them an hour.

“There was a lot of blockades of Russians. They were stopping us continuously asking us where we were going, why, and they were looking at our documents,” Krukovska said. “They were trying to find ex soldiers.”

It was easier for her family to escape because there were three women in the car and her father. Russians tend to not pay much attention to women and children.

Escaping Occupation

The route they took was through a field in the middle of a rainstorm called the ‘gray zone’. In this zone, it’s hard for one to distinguish where they are because it’s in the middle of Ukrainian and Russian soil.

Krukovska and her family saw missiles fly over their heads. One of the missiles they saw ended up striking a hospital in their town.

“A few minutes after we saw [the missiles] we finally saw Ukrainian soldiers,” she said. “Everyone cries when they see Ukrainian soldiers after escaping occupation. I also cried because you know that it’s over. You are finally free.”

They escaped the occupation in one day which Krukovska said was “really lucky because [her] relatives fled their home a week earlier and they spent three days trying to escape. They were standing in the field waiting because Russians were not allowing people to go.”

The day after the Krukovska’s escaped, the road they took was shut down by the Russians forcing Ukrainians to find an alternative route to freedom.

New Opportunities

Once the Krukovska’s made it the Kherson they did their best to adjust to this new life, but there were still challenges.

Continuing her education was difficult because “everyday there was missiles flying in the sky and [she] experienced air raids four times a day.”

“It [was] really hard to study because all education [was and still is] online,” she said. “[Receiving] quality education is hard right now.”

However in May, Krukovska decided to apply to a program called Ukrainian Global University, which helps Ukrainian students enroll in various universities around the world to gain a higher education then return to Ukraine to help rebuild after the war.

“I really wanted to help my country because I am a patriot and I want Ukraine to flourish, improve, become a popular tourist destination, and I want the whole world to know about Ukraine,” she said.

The emphasis of her application process was on how studying abroad in a foreign country would help her to receive a higher education and come back to Ukraine to rebuild.

A couple days passed before Krukovska received a letter from Ashland University saying they wanted to interview her. She was interviewed by Dr. Olga Monacell and Rich Policz of the Ashbrook Scholar Program.

“When it started they asked me only one question: Tell us about yourself.”

By the time September rolled around, Krukovska knew she was coming to the Ashland.

A lot of planning and preparation went into her trip. Krukovska had to go to the U.S. Embassy in Poland to apply for a visa and had to fill out several different forms for AU.

After months of preparing, it was finally time for Krukovska to leave Ukraine.

At 5 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2023, Krukovska left Ukraine and started her new adventure in the U.S.

A Different Culture

“When I arrived in the U.S.A. of course I was a little bit anxious because it was a new country, new people, and a new language,” she said.

Krukovska has been dealing with culture shock as well.

“The biggest cultural shock was when we arrived was the sizes of everything! We ordered a medium size drink and they gave us a huge drink. In Ukraine it would’ve been an extra large.”

Krukovska realized how people dress in America is entirely different than in Ukraine.

“A lot of students go to class in their pajamas. In Ukraine, we dress more formally even if we aren’t forced to dress up,” she said. “Everyone is more relaxed here. I really like that mindset.”

While students’ attire might be a little different in the US compared to Ukraine, the relationship between students and professors is also.

“Here, I like how we study and that professors give you support. In Ukraine, we don’t have that friendly relationship with professors and students,” she said. “I feel like I am equal to my professors.”

Krukovska came to AU to receive a degree in journalism.

“I think studying a foreign language and studying journalism here will help me when I go back to Ukraine by maybe establishing my own media,” she said. “To help Ukraine, spread quality and unbiased information, and to make the world aware of Ukraine.”

While coming to the U.S. might be challenging, the real challenge still lies ahead: Rebuilding Ukraine.

“I can help rebuild Ukraine physically, but I can also help rebuild Ukraine mentally.”

— Dana Krukovska

To read Ashland University implements Ukrainian Freedom Scholar Program to campus