Ukrainian students, academics fleeing war begin studies at Israeli universities

Teenage boys from Ukraine’s world championship math team among groups largely of women, whose husbands and families are still in war-torn country

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Ukrainian students at a Tel Aviv University fundraiser for Ukraine held on May 1 to 2, 2022. (Tel Aviv University)
Ukrainian students at a Tel Aviv University fundraiser for Ukraine held on May 1 to 2, 2022. (Tel Aviv University)

Israeli universities are stepping up to the plate to absorb students from Ukraine whose studies have been disrupted by the ongoing war.

The vast majority are women; most Ukrainian men aged between 18 and 60 are obliged to stay at home to be called up for military service if necessary.

Nineteen students and researchers are continuing their work at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev in the southern city of Beersheba.

“I was forced to leave Ukraine because I was very afraid for my life,” said Viktoria Taranik, who expressed gratitude to the university for taking her in.

“My mom works under a contract as a border guard on the border with Poland and she is now unable to leave the country due to the difficult military situation,” she said.

“My grandparents are in the Donetsk region [in eastern Ukraine], a region where fighting has been going on since 2014. I am very worried about my mother and grandparents,” she said.

Tel Aviv University, which established an Emergency Fellowship Fund for Ukrainian graduate students in early March, has welcomed seven Ukrainian graduate students, all of them women.

Viktoriia Taranik (center) from Lutsk, Ukraine, is a BA student of International Relations at Lesya Ukrainka Volyn National University. She is currently at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba, southern Israel, taking part in the semester program and enrolled in courses in political science, history, and Israel studies. Right: Lior Rosenthal Almoznino, Director of the Visa and Health Insurance Unit. Left: Lila Perlman-Sophie, Director of International and Non-Degree International Exchanges. (Danny Machlis, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev)

Hailing from various Ukrainian cities, they are continuing their studies in law, medicine, psychology, music and linguistics.

“I managed to speak to my family yesterday, but today the connection was severed and I was unable to reach them,” said Alisa, a graduate student in law, who is studying Crisis Management at TAU. She comes from a small town near Mariupol, in eastern Ukraine, an area which has suffered some of the heaviest fighting and destruction.

Marina, studying law, was enrolled at the Ukrainian State Pedagogical University in Kropyvnytskyi, a central town that she said was pretty safe for now.

But the university premises there have been converted into living quarters for people fleeing from more dangerous areas, and lectures are only taking place online and are sporadic.

“I was supposed to graduate in June,” Marina said, “but for now, I’m just happy to be able to continue my studies here at TAU.”

Earlier this month, the women sold products they had made during a two-day event, and raised more than $5,000 — enough to buy 86 first aid kits and 24 pairs of military boots.

At Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan in central Israel, four members of Ukraine’s world championship math team are already settling in, with another six waiting to join them as soon as their paperwork has been completed. All are aged 14 to 18.

Coaches for the Israeli math team heard of their rivals’ plight and arranged for them to relocate and study at the university for the foreseeable future.

“One moment all my academic hopes were halted due to the war, and the next, I’m starting university studies at age 16 in Israel,” said Boris Holikov from Dnipro, Ukraine’s fourth-largest city. “I grabbed the opportunity almost straight away, as I know I won’t regret it.”

Leonid Diachenko, 14, from Kyiv, said: “My mother took me as far as Poland but then I had to say goodbye. It was really hard to say goodbye to my mom because I don’t know when I’ll see her. It could be a long time and I think lots about the safety of my whole family, but I have to live with this.”

Ukrainian students pictured with Israeli math team coach Aleksandr Tolesnikov. ( Bar-Ilan University Spokesman’s Office)

Over the last few weeks, the Bar-Ilan International School, led by executive director Ofer Dahan, has arranged visas and housing and prepared an interdisciplinary academic curriculum tailored to the students’ needs.

“From now until October, the youth will take courses in math, computer science, and physics, and will learn Hebrew as well. They will receive university credits and some of the students are expected to segue into bachelor’s degree studies in October,” said Bar-Ilan CEO Zohar Yinon.

As part of a separate track, Bar-Ilan has received some 50 inquiries from Ukrainian university students and researchers seeking admission. Thirteen of the 50 have already been absorbed and more are expected to arrive soon.

Meanwhile, Jerusalem’s Hebrew University has accepted 18 students from Ukraine, of whom 10 have already arrived.

One of them, Dr. Anastasiia Zinevych, recalled how the buildings shook at Odesa National Economic University where she was teaching as bombs fell, severely damaging a nearby airport.

She and her husband decided to leave Ukraine with its “supermarket shelves bare of food and the pharmacies out of medicine.”

Dr. Anastasia Zinevych. (Tali Aronsky/Hebrew University)

“All we took with us were two laptops and a copy of my husband’s poetry,” she said.

In need of medical treatment, the couple chose Israel because they had “heard good things about Hebrew University Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital.”

Zinev, who is living in a university-affiliated apartment, is currently working with Prof. Ran Hassin at HU’s Center for the Study of Rationality.

Of the nine other Ukrainian refugees, several undergraduates are continuing their studies at HU’s Rothberg International School, while several professors have joined HU’s Psychology, Sociology, History, Jewish Studies, Computer Science, and Agriculture departments.

In addition, three researchers have arrived at the University of Haifa and more research students are expected to arrive in the coming days.

In March, the university established an emergency fund to support 100 scholars from Ukraine and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union who are affected by the war.

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