A Ukrainian watches their country at war

Ph.D. student Alice Sukhina watched on their computer at Penn as their hometown of Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, was invaded by Russian troops. While their parents were able to leave Ukraine, the rest of their family remains.

Alice Sukhina in Ukraine holding a large Ukrainian flag wearing a flower crown.
Alice Sukhina casting their first-ever vote in an election in 2019 at the Ukrainian embassy in New York City.

On March 2, Russian troops took command of the biggest nuclear power plant in Europe, located just outside the southeastern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia. Since Feb. 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine, Russian forces have launched missiles at cities and towns throughout the country, and ground troops have invaded from the south, east, and north, including a convoy of tanks and soldiers 40 miles long. Meanwhile, Ukrainian resistance is comprised largely of civilians who have taken up arms to protect their homeland, while 1.5 million Ukrainians have fled to neighboring Moldova, Romania, Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary.

Alice Sukhina watched footage of civilians in Zaporizhzhia block Russian troops from approaching the nuclear power plant. “I recognized some of them,” Sukhina says. Sukhina is a fourth-year Ph.D. student at Penn, pursuing a doctorate in microbiology, virology, and parasitology in the Perelman School of Medicine. Sukhina’s entire extended family is still in Ukraine, in and around Zaporizhzhia.

“When Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, I was 13 or 14 years old. My family had to reside in Moscow at the time, my father’s job brought us there. The annexation of Crimea solidified my decision not to study in Moscow, and instead I went to the U.S.”

Sukhina studied as an undergrad at UCLA, then came to Philadelphia in 2018 to pursue a Ph.D. They study how chronic food deprivation and undernutrition affect the immune system on a cellular level, and are creating a model to study how undernutrition and characterizing immune dysfunction can support future research. (Sukhina uses they/them pronouns.) At Penn, Sukhina is a graduate resident advisor at Hill College House, as well as a student mentor.

The last time Sukhina saw their family was 2015. The previous U.S. administration’s immigration policies made travel to Ukraine too risky for Sukhina, who feared their visa might not be renewed when trying to reenter the U.S. Then came the pandemic, and travel became impossible. They returned to Ukraine in the summer of 2021; it had been six years since they saw family. In that time, their mother moved to Kyiv, but their extended family remained in Zaporizhzhia.

“I spent the summer in Kyiv, and saw my grandmother and aunt and extended family in Zaporizhzhia,” Sukhina says. “There was a feeling of dread already. My hometown is close to the military zone, one of the cities that by Russia is considered to be a strategic point, and there is a large Russian-speaking population.

“It was bad,” Sukhina says. “I saw military equipment being moved, and the refugee centers that were set up since 2014, people from Donetsk and Luhansk. There has been a constant flood of people trying to leave that area for years.”

Sukhina says that after they returned to Philadelphia, and coming into the winter, they were troubled that things were getting worse back in Ukraine. “People at home were worried, people in Moscow were worried. There was an overall feeling of unease,” they say.

“In the third or fourth week of January, I told my mom, ‘I think it’s going to happen, a full-blown invasion. I think you should leave.’ My extended family thought I was paranoid that an outright invasion would happen, although everyone felt uneasy about an escalation.”

Sukhina persuaded their mom to pack up and leave on Feb. 20, four days before the Russian invasion.

Sukhina’s mother left for Poland, with only two suitcases and enough money to last a few months. Sukhina’s father was harder to convince to leave. He resides in Kyiv, but travels often for work. “I finally convinced him to go visit a business associate. He left with just an overnight bag.” Of their entire family, only Sukhina’s mother and father managed to leave the country. “My mom is losing her mind, with all our family and friends stuck in Ukraine, so close to a dangerous situation.”

Then came the night of March 2, when Russian troops occupied the nuclear power plant, damaging one reactor, although the remaining reactors are intact. “There is a photo going around of a civilian column walking past Russian tanks towards [the] nuclear power plant. I know people in that photo. I know people who are physically trying to stop this strategic place from falling,” Sukhina says. “It’s impossible to describe how it feels.”

Sukhina flew to Poland on Friday, March 3 to reunite with their mother. It is unclear whether their mother will be able to leave Poland anytime soon. It is difficult to get an appointment at the Ukrainian embassy in Poland; after they arrived, Sukhina was able to schedule an appointment for their mom in the late summer. At this time, Canada has more favorable legislation to welcome Ukrainians, by waiving visa requirements and allowing Ukrainian people apply for a work permit without an employer invitation.

If Sukhina’s mother can manage to get on a plane, they can seek longer-term housing and employment in Canada, closer to Philadelphia.

“We are trying to get her to apply for a regular tourist visa. The U.S. embassy in Poland right now does not even provide appointments for Ukrainians who don’t have a parent or spouse in the U.S. who are residents or citizens. We can’t get her to travel to another country to try other embassies. Every time you apply for an appointment you have to pay a visa consulate fee of $160. We have to work with what we’ve got, and the closest we’ve got is to go to Canada.”

Sukhina has been able to visit their mother in Poland and will be able to return to the U.S. because they renewed their visa last summer. Just last week, the Department of Homeland Security granted citizens of Ukraine Temporary Protected Status in the U.S., allowing those individuals to stay in the country regardless of visa status and not face immigration issues.

While they have been helping their mother and other family members from here in Philadelphia, while in Poland, Sukhina continues to help. In the short time since they arrived in Poland, Sukhina has raised funds and found support for three family friends; secured money and medicine for a woman with a sick elderly mother who can’t leave Kyiv due to her mother’s condition; arranged transit to and accommodations in Poland for a woman with a 6-year-old-daughter; and secured shelter and money for groceries for a woman who had walked across the border with her young son, both of whom were frostbitten from the cold.

“My mom and I got our first good night of sleep in over a month this weekend,” Sukhina says. From the moment they wake up until falling asleep, Sukhina is on a laptop, filling out endless forms, refreshing Homeland Security websites, making calls, and reaching out to people who either can lend help or need help.

Sukhina points out that a school like Penn, with a robust international student body, has always had a number of students who are from countries where war has broken out—from Syria to Afghanistan to Ukraine. What those students need, Sukhina says, are money, logistical assistance, and legal aid, and help with paperwork that Sukhina says is “endless and repetitive.”

“I’ve lived in the U.S. for eight years now,” they say. “I have friends here, mentors, people who I can count on for help. I’m struggling a lot, but I have a life and stability and social networks. I was able to find a pro-bono immigration attorney through a friend of a friend. It gave me enough time to help me submit my own forms so I can help my family. My concern is less for people like myself, even though we need help. My concern is for students who are new to the U.S. They don’t have a social security number, they can’t get a credit card, they are reliant on financial aid. Someone who is 18 and facing this will need basic help, and legal and financial aid.

“No one wants a war, but at this point there has to be an understanding that a small number of the student population will face this.”