Courtesy of Rehina Solodovnik
Before the Russian military invaded, 20-year-old Rehina Solodovnik described her life in the river city of Dnipro as idyllic.
“Before everything happened, I believe I had the best life possible. I have a loving family — my grandma, my aunt, my parents, my baby brother was born last year,” she said. “I have a part-time job as an English tutor.”
Some of those she tutored were Russians, who connected with her online, from across the border. When the war broke out, her teaching stopped. But she’s still getting text messages from the Russians.
“I remember this message clearly. This girl said, ‘I am so sorry for our government. I know they won’t apologize to you for whatever damage they’re doing to your country, but I will instead,'” Solodovnik recalled. “And that made me cry.”
More than 1 million Ukrainians have fled their homeland in the 10 days since Russia invaded. Yet more than 40 million remain in Ukraine, many wrestling with decisions on whether to stay or leave.
Expecting to stay
When I spoke with Solodovnik on Tuesday, she said she was staying in Dnipro, a city of about 1 million people on the Dnieper River. The city has not been hit so far by the fighting.
Still, her bags were packed just in case.
Solodovnik is also a student. She’s in her final semester at Dnipro National University, where she studies linguistics and speaks seven languages — Ukrainian, Russian, English, German, Spanish, Chinese and Korean.
One of her teachers at the university is American Michael Sampson.
He’s a professor at St. John’s University in New York, who arrived in Ukraine last fall to spend a year as a Fulbright scholar.
With war looming, he left in January, relocating to Warsaw, Poland. The university asked if he wanted to keep teaching students online.
“I said, ‘Sure, even if there’s just one person there, I’d be glad to talk to her,'” he noted. “What I found out is my role is almost as a counselor now. Just talking to people, letting them talk and get their frustrations out, get their fears out.”
In addition to teaching the college students, he was also working with several elementary schools.
“My research is with kids. grades two through seven, and I’m trying out some of the techniques that I think will enhance their learning of the English and their ability to write English,” he said.
Sampson is married to a Ukrainian woman, Alona, who’s 47. She grew up in Ukraine when it was part of the Soviet Union, and therefore speaks Russian and has an understanding of Russia.
But younger Ukrainians — those born after the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 and Ukraine became an independent country — feel no such connection to Russia.
“I would say the younger kids are anti-Russian,” he said. “I asked 25 young people, ‘Should I study Ukrainian or Russian?’ And 100 percent, all 25, said, ‘Study Ukrainian.'”
Sampson says he’s not surprised at how fiercely the Ukrainians are resisting the Russian invasion.
“They are determined to protect their country. They will pick up, they’ll take up arms,” he said. “Someone told me that the Russians probably would take (the capital) Kyiv in a couple of days, and I said, ‘Well, they may occupy it, but they’re going to have 3 million people that don’t want them there.'”
The war closes in
Meanwhile, Rehina Solodovnik was among those determined to stay in her home city of Dnipro, though she acknowledged the mounting stress.
“I’m just glued to the screen watching the news 24/7. And this is exhausting me in so many ways,” she said.
Then on Friday, she awoke to the news that the Russians had attacked and seized the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant — less than 100 south of her home.
She decided to leave Ukraine. As of Saturday evening, she was traveling in western Ukraine with her aunt and grandmother, heading to the border with Poland.
Michael Sampson was waiting to greet her.
Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.
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