Refugee students on campus
Jackson Volenec – Contributor
Oleksandr “Sasha” Stelmakh was only 16 years old when he and his mother had to walk over 10 miles from Lviv to Poland, suitcases in hand, in the blistering cold. When he crossed the border, he saw nothing but a huge, cold, winter field. When he turned to see his mother, he knew she felt just as uncertain of the future as he was in that moment.
Fast forward less than eight months, and Stelmakh’s life has been completely transformed. The young 16-year-old with a passion for guitars, computer games and his family’s life were uprooted by war, but he has found a new home here in New Haven with the Owls.
“I love Southern, this school is like a family to me now,” said Stelmakh. “I am very thankful to be here.”
Before Stelmakh had moved to the United States, he had a stable and comfortable life in his hometown of Kyiv, where he lived with his grandparents and mother. Recently finishing the Ukrainian equivalent of high school, he was looking to enter a university starting in the summertime. This was until February 24th, where he would wake up to the sound of his mother’s warnings that Russia was bombing all Ukrainian infrastructure, and they needed to pack their bags.
“I thought that maybe it was just a nightmare and I needed to wake up. I closed my eyes and opened again. No, it’s not a nightmare, it’s an awful reality,” Stelmakh said.
There was no time to think about what was happening: It was life or death. Once out of Kyiv, Sasha went to an unidentified village with his mother, uncle and grandparents about 50 miles from Kyiv. He spent a week at a summer vacation home that was not designed for long-term stay; no water, heat
, or showers to accommodate an entire family in the middle of winter’s coldest month.
“After two days we understood that we don’t have enough food for five people and started to eat once per day. I was always hungry, and I would hear explosions every day around us. It was louder than any thunder I’ve ever heard in my life,” said Stelmakh.
Eventually, Stelmakh and his mother had reached a train station that was to have an anonymous escape route for the Ukrainians. Nobody knew when this train would arrive; it was unsafe to disclose the time of arrival.
Stelmakh and his mother had to sit in the train station for five hours, listening to constant explosions all around him.
“Later on the news, I saw that these explosions happened only 1500 feet away,”
said Stelmakh. “That five hours on the train station still comes in my nightmares.”
After boarding the train, Stelmakh and his mother went through several different towns, and finally was able to get some food into his body and start to heal emotionally. However, the uncertainty of what was to come had left Stelmakh feeling anxious and unrest frequently.
“I didn’t know if I could study again. Could I meet my friends and grandparents? What will be with us tomorrow? From eighth grade I dreamed to be a computer scientist and now all my dreams were crushed, like a lot of Ukrainian kids,” said Stelmakh.
Having his entire life uprooted, Stelmakh had no other choice but to take it one day at a time.
“My grandparents sent us one message per day that they are alive and called whenever possible. But they didn’t have food and water. They spent all days in a small cold basement… Every call to my grandparents could be the last for them,” said Stelmakh. “It was very hard for me emotionally.”
His grandparents are now currently safe and living in their home country.
Stelmakh experienced a rollercoaster of relocating after relocating. He had moved a total of 15 times before finding himself in Washington D.C, from places like the village, Krakov, Vienna, Paris and multiple locations within Warsaw, traveling only with his mother, being forced to leave the rest of his friends and family and enter completely unmarked territory: the West.
“When I came to the United States, I was very disoriented, I had a lot of questions in my head. How can I study?” said Stelmakh. “Despite everything I’d been through in the last month, I still wanted to study and be a computer scientist.”
It was then when Stelmakh met Michael Waxman, a professor who had taught in the United States for 30 years after moving from Russia. Professor Waxman was distraught seeing Ukrainian children become displaced academically, and started a program called Tutors Without Borders, an academic service which provides education for free to Ukrainian students. Stelmakh was the very first student of this program, and was taught English, and took the necessary steps to apply to a university.
“I started this effort to try and help young people affected by this situation,” said Waxman.
His program is focused on teaching students displaced by the Ukrainian conflict in chemistry, physics, and math. He helps kids on a case-by-case basis, assisting some students find their way into higher education.
“When I was tutoring Oleksandr, it took him some time to get used to it I think,” said Waxman. “Eventually though, I could see him lighting up to his old self.”
Oleksandr was one of the first students to be taken under Professor Waxman’s program, and speaks fondly of the experience, and attributes him as an assistant in finding the right college.
“Waxman knew I dreamed of being a computer scientist. One day he called me and told me about Southern. I applied and described my story,” Stelmakh said. “I was happy when in my mailbox I found a blue envelope with a paper that I enrolled!”
Since living in the United States, Stelmakh has found comfort in calling himself an Owl. He is currently living in Schwartz Hall with a roommate, and is enjoying campus life, soaking in new experiences all the time. He enjoys playing computer games, pool and other recreations in the student center.
“Southern gave me hope which the war destroyed. One day I will be a computer scientist! Southern has met me with warmth and kindness, and I understood that it is my home for the nearest time,” said Stelmakh.
For now, Stelmakh is content and happy to live in the United States and continue his education in computer science.
“I hope I have a chance to use my knowledge to rebuild my Ukraine. I am very grateful to SCSU, because of them I am a happy student now,” said Stelmakh. “Thank you so much.”