Svitlana Khyliuk crosses the border from Poland into Ukraine, laden with supplies and donations, in March 2022.
Driving eastward in Ukraine, toward the air raid sirens that had started the day before, Svitlana Khyliuk made a call to Poland. On the other end, Magdalena Charzyńska-Wójcik listened as her friend retold the traumatic events of the past 24 hours.
At around 10 a.m. that morning, Khyliuk had walked with her two young children across Ukraine’s western border into Poland. They were fleeing the advancing Russian forces that launched a full-scale invasion of their homeland the previous day, February 24, 2022. An existential threat confronted her family. Khyliuk and her husband, Oleksiy, had to make a heart-wrenching decision.
The family’s journey to Poland was exhausting, terrifying and traumatic. What would typically be a one-hour drive took 14. They drove as far west as they could before hitting gridlock from mass movement toward the border. Oleksiy, who would not and could not leave his country when it was under siege, remained with their car, watching his wife, daughter and son set off on foot into the cold February night.
After a 15-kilometer walk, Khyliuk and the children reached a border crossing and joined a line of countless other women and children, with whom they stood shoulder to shoulder for several hours, unable to use the bathroom or even sit down. Five-year-old Max cried that this forest of taller bodies made him feel like he was “drowning in people,” and begged his mother to make it stop.
When they finally crossed into the relative safety of Polish territory, Khyliuk’s stay was momentary, just long enough to hand her children into the care of her brother, Dmytro, living in Lublin. Her daughter, Larysa, days from her 12th birthday and acutely aware of the danger facing her parents, pointed in confusion at the other women in the crowd, all of whom seemed to be staying with their children, and asked why her mother could not do the same.
Walking back to her husband and war-torn Ukraine, Khyliuk was the only person crossing the border in the opposite direction. On her 15 kilometer walk back to Oleksiy, the adrenaline that had helped her ferry Larysa and Max to safety began to wane. “I realized,” she remembers, “that I was not able to proceed, I was not physically able to keep going.” She flagged down a passing driver who, seeing her exhaustion, brought her the rest of the way.
Driving back to Lviv, Khyliuk called Charzyńska-Wójcik. The children were safe with Khyliuk’s brother in Lublin: could her friend help watch over Larysa and Max during this indefinite, possibly permanent separation? It had been just six months since Khyliuk, director of the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) law school, and Charzyńska-Wójcik, associate professor at the John Paul II Catholic University (KUL), first met at Notre Dame.
No longer ‘no big deal’
Charzyńska-Wójcik and Khyliuk met by the espresso machine at Notre Dame’s Nanovic Institute for European Studies. The richness of their connection was immediately apparent.
“It wasn’t small talk,” Charzyńska-Wójcik says, “we jumped into our relationship headfirst, into deep waters.”
The women were part of a visiting scholars program, connected to the Catholic Universities Partnership, which brought faculty to Notre Dame from Catholic universities in post-communist and post-Soviet Eastern Europe. During that first conversation, they discussed the “shades and difficulties” of being women in leadership at Catholic universities — Charzyńska-Wójcik had recently completed her tenure as KUL’s Dean of Humanities and, at the time, Khyliuk was academic director of UCU’s law school — and of balancing responsibilities to their families, colleagues and students.
Charzyńska-Wójcik’s husband, Jerzy, and daughter, Emily, had remained in Poland. That made her especially grateful for the many ways Khyliuk welcomed her into her home. Just a few days after they met, Khyliuk invited Charzyńska-Wójcik to Sunday lunch and to meet Oleksiy, Larysa and Max. In her turn, Khyliuk appreciated Charzyńska-Wójcik’s guidance as she simultaneously navigated both the fellowship at Notre Dame and her leadership in UCU’s law school. Khyliuk fulfilled her many roles with such apparent calm and perspective that Charzyńska-Wójcik gave her the moniker “Svitlana ‘No Big Deal.’”
When the women bid farewell at the Nanovic Institute just before Christmas 2021, they hoped that they would meet again the following May at CUP’s Advanced Leadership Program in Rome. “We gave each other a strong hug,” Charzyńska-Wójcik recalls, “because we knew that we were going to miss each other, but we never expected that the next time we would meet would be at the Polish-Ukrainian border.”
Despite the long history and recent escalation of Russian aggression toward Ukraine — its annexation of Crimea, involvement in the war in Donbas and the large military presence massing near Ukraine’s border — many Ukrainians considered a full-scale invasion inconceivable.
In December, while still at Notre Dame, Khyliuk received an email from a Kyiv law firm notifying its lawyers of the growing threat in the country’s eastern regions and asking them to move west or abroad. “It was difficult in that moment to believe war could happen,” she says, “it was so stupid, it was so irrational . . . we expected some aggravation of the situation on our eastern border but we did not expect the scale of the escalation we got.”
By the evening of February 24, those expectations had been shattered. Kyiv, the capital city some 500 kilometers away from Khyliuk’s home in Lviv, was under attack. And the list of embattled areas was growing. Khyliuk recalls: “Kharkiv was bombed, Kherson was bombed … the [Chernobyl] nuclear power station was occupied, Suma region was occupied, and it was difficult to believe all this mess.”
Accounts from the front predicted that if the Russian army kept up the intensity of its attack, it would reach Lviv in two to three days. Khyliuk also received chilling reports of execution lists drawn up by the Russian military with the names of individuals who promote Ukrainian nationhood. As a professor at a Ukrainian university, such a list suggested that Khyliuk was in grave danger.
At this moment, she knew two things: First, she had to remove her daughter and son from danger. The best option was to take them to the Polish border where they could meet her brother, who teaches chemistry at the Medical University of Lublin. Second, she could not abandon her leadership role at UCU’s law school, even if it meant returning to Ukraine without her children. Khyliuk felt a deep sense of responsibility to her students sheltering in their dorms, to her endangered colleagues and to the integrity of the five-year-old law school into which she had poured so much of herself.
Imminent danger notwithstanding, Khyliuk also believed that as an irrational, mindless act of aggression, this invasion could not last more than a few weeks. She reconciled herself to a temporary separation from Max and Larysa. Gathering the children’s passports and as much of their lives as they could fit in a single backpack, the family began their harrowing journey to the Polish border.
Ten days later, on March 5, Khyliuk returned to Poland on the first of several visits she would make to Lublin to see her children. This time, she was welcomed to Poland by her friend Magda.
While this experience of crossing into Poland was less physically arduous — Polish civilians had set up a humanitarian relief station for Ukrainian refugees — the two friends still spent several hours traveling along opposite sides of the border, tracking each other’s location via phone and text until they found the crossing with the shortest queuing time.
Charzyńska-Wójcik remembers the tears they shed with their first hug, the moment of reunion: “Svitlana looked at the sky and she said, ‘It’s the first time I feel safe. It’s no longer ‘no big deal.’’”
A guardian in Lublin
During the two months they spent in Lublin, Larysa and Max were cared for by their uncle and grandmother, Khyliuk’s mother. Charzyńska-Wójcik provided what support she could and helped guard the children’s emotional well-being.
The challenge and blessing of 5-year-old Max’s trauma was that his sadness and pain could, to some degree, be alleviated by affection and company — and by new toys. Convincing her son to leave behind his favorite toy crane is still one of Khyliuk’s abiding memories of their flight to Poland. During his time in Lublin, Max received a collection of toy horses, dinosaur pajamas and a now-treasured stuffed octopus from Charzyńska-Wójcik.
Unlike her little brother, Larysa understood the horrors unfolding in Ukraine and the very real possibility that she may never see her parents again. In Lublin, Charzyńska-Wójcik watched Larysa follow every detail of the news from Ukraine, keeping track of precise military operations, the growing list of victims and the horrors of Bucha. “She is smart enough to read and to understand,” Khyliuk says, “but she is not mature enough to process all of the information.”
To Larysa, Charzyńska-Wójcik provided friendship, a listening ear and, when possible, some joy and levity. Just over a week after the children arrived in Poland, Larysa turned 12. In her mother’s absence, Charzyńska-Wójcik, along with her husband, Jerzy, and daughter, Emily, arranged a small party with a birthday cake.
Khyliuk is also carrying her own trauma. She will never forget walking away from her confused children at the border with Poland and the overwhelming exhaustion that hit her during her walk back to her husband.
She will never forget the seemingly endless stream of women and children lining the border, survivors of Borodynaka, Bucha and Hostomel. “Most of them had nothing, like nothing,” she explains, “just their kid and nothing else. Some of them had already lost relatives, family members, husbands, and I am sure that some of them had been raped.”
Standing with these women, waiting to cross into Poland, Khyliuk noticed their silence about the sexual violence that she knew at least some of them had suffered. “The only thing they were talking about in that moment,” she remembers, “was that they knew what hell looked like.”
The supply line from KUL to UCU
Khyliuk visited Lublin every two or three weeks in March and April. On her return journeys to Ukraine, she was often the only person heading east, passing incredulous Polish border guards. One said, “Are you crazy?” and tried to physically block her path.
Khyliuk’s commitment to her responsibilities at UCU was unwavering and her link to Poland helped her make a vital contribution to the Ukrainian resistance. Within the first two weeks of the war, the university had established a logistics center managed by one of Khyliuk’s first-year law students. Their task — to raise funds and source supplies for the front lines — was herculean. When the war broke out, Khyliuk explains, “Ukraine was not prepared. Even [sourcing] bandages, and very simple equipment like tourniquets, was a problem.” The availability of such medical supplies in neighboring countries like Poland was also increasingly limited.
Khyliuk’s connection to Charzyńska-Wójcik and the faculty at KUL facilitated a supply line to this humanitarian hub. In preparation for Khyliuk’s visits to Lublin, Charzyńska-Wojcik’s friends and colleagues arrived at her home with medications, tourniquets and other supplies. Charzyńska-Wójcik’s friends donated money that could be sent to Ukraine or elsewhere to buy more equipment.
“I remember how Svitlana told me,” she says, “how much one tourniquet cost and that was two coffees — that’s the price of life!”
Khyliuk carried these donations and supplies back across the border, initially in a large, heavy backpack and later filling every space they could find in her car.
Although motivated by the conviction that they were making an important contribution to Ukraine’s defense, each return east filled the friends with dread. Charzyńska-Wójcik describes watching Khyliuk cross back to Ukraine in mid-March, burdened by a large backpack full of supplies.
“I just couldn’t move,” she recalls, “because I saw Svitlana going back. . . . She was going back to a country at war and neither of us knew whether we were going to meet again. Worse still, Svitlana didn’t know if she was going to see her children again.”
Easter cake in Lviv
At the end of April, Khyliuk traveled to Lublin to visit her children, a trip that coincided with the Orthodox celebration of Easter. In Ukraine, this holiday traditionally includes a breakfast feast, the highlight of which is a special cake, a favorite for 5-year-old Max.
After the celebration with her children in Lublin, Khyliuk planned to return home alone as usual. Ukrainians were anticipating a heavy attack on May 9, a Russian holiday that commemorates the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in 1945, so she had no intention of bringing the children home until at least mid-May.
When his mother arrived, Max watched with great anticipation as she unpacked the treats for their Easter breakfast, including his favorite cake. He then asked a familiar question — “Where is Dad?” Khyliuk gave him her much-repeated explanation about the war and why Oleksiy had to stay in Lviv. At this, she recalls, “Max just packed the cake back in the bag and said, ‘Ні торта без тата’ [no cake without Dad].”
In this moment Khyliuk decided to bring her children home. In February, she had believed that removing her children to the relative safety of Poland would be a temporary necessity, but as Russia’s war on Ukraine became more entrenched, she realized that the family could not live apart indefinitely. Reassuring her friends and loved ones in Poland about the strength of the bomb shelters at Max’s kindergarten and on the UCU campus, Khyliuk took her children home to Lviv — and Max shared his Easter cake with his father.
Battles Still to Fight
The war in Ukraine is far from over. Khyliuk and her family still face immense danger and uncertainty about the future. She worries about the emotional scars that little Max might be hiding behind the simple joys of childhood. And she is alarmed by her daughter’s complacency at the sound of an air-raid siren — a lack of concern that, to her mother, suggests not that Larysa thinks the worst could never happen, but that she doesn’t care if it does.
Khyliuk knows that sustaining her family’s strength depends on them being encircled by love, empathy and solidarity of the kind that Magda, her constant friend in Lublin, has provided.
They have met several times since Khyliuk returned home from Lublin with her children, including at a conference in Rome focused on resilience and leadership in universities with colleagues from Notre Dame and Catholic Universities Partnership institutions. And they have plans for a collaboration between their law schools.
Their connection, evident from the moment they met by the espresso machine at Notre Dame, has provided invaluable support for the inspiring resilience Khyliuk’s family has shown in the face of a brutal invasion.
This article is based on a virtual conversation in February 2023 between Svitlana Khyliuk, Magdalena Charzyńska-Wójcik and the author, Gráinne McEvoy, writer and editorial program manager at the Nanovic Institute for European Studies.