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How one Ukrainian Middlebury student stays connected to home during war

Middlebury sophomore Rostyk Yarovyk wears a white shirt sitting on an outdoor porch in front of a green autumn backdrop, holding a postcard showing the cityscape of Lviv, Ukraine
Courtesy of Rostyk Yarovyk
Middlebury sophomore Rostyk Yarovyk holding a postcard of Lviv, Ukraine, where he grew up.

The war in Ukraine has entered its ninth month, and for many Americans, news fatigue has set in.

But for Rostyk Yarovyk, a sophomore at Middlebury College, the war continues to bring a host of daily worries and responsibilities. He's from Lviv, a city in western Ukraine. His parents and some of his grandparents still live there, and it's been more than a year since he's seen them. He's never met his baby brother, who was born last spring.

I first spoke to Yarovyk in April, about six weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine. He was holding down three campus jobs and sending about a third of his earnings back to his family, who planned to remain in Lviv — they'd spent most of their savings on getting him to Vermont and couldn't afford to flee. Yarovyk was terrified for them, but his new Vermont community helped him feel supported.

After our interview aired onVermont Edition, Yarovyk told me listeners mailed him some financial donations for his family and letters of support. He wanted a chance to say thank you, so we got on Zoom to catch up.

"I dream about my hometown every day."
Rostyk Yarovyk

In the months since our first conversation, nearly 8 million Ukrainians have fled the country. Thousands have lost their lives.

Yarovyk's family remains relatively safe, though citywide power outages have become more frequent. Air raid sirens interrupt their calls with their son — they often have to hang up on him to go to a bomb shelter.

He fears for the safety of his grandmother and uncle, who both work at a nearby military base. And he worries about the high prices of food and fuel, especially as winter approaches.

"It's just a lot to grapple with, considering that I'm here in safety in Vermont," he said.

He described FaceTiming with his baby brother, who was born shortly after our first interview in the spring. "From what my mom says, I'm the only person he actually remembers," Yarovyk said. "He'll always reach out to the phone too, because, I don't know, maybe he recognizes me — that I'm his brother."

This past summer, Yarovyk wasn't able to go home. He spent the summer staying at friends' houses around Europe, with tickets Middlebury College provided. He had fun, he said, but it wasn't the same as going home.

"I dream about my hometown every day," he said. "It's kind of like vivid and lucid dreaming, where I realized that I'm in my hometown, and I realized that, oh, my God, there's so many coffee places that I need to visit. There's my family that I need to visit. And then I wake up immediately, and I just feel a little bit sad."

Phone calls with his family tend to center around the mundane details of daily life, rather than the war. "They kind of want to forget about it, at least when they talk to me, and they feel happy," he said. "And they don't really want to pressure me or, you know, make my day worse by talking about how hard it is." Instead, they talk about the mundane, relatable details of their days — their jobs, or what they just ate.

"I was born here. I was raised here. I spent my entire life in the city."
Rostyk Yarovyk

In April, Yarovyk's professors and classmates regularly asked him about the war. These days, those conversations have become more infrequent.

"News fatigue is very real," he said. "I totally understand how it feels to have so much on your mind. It's my struggle to bear, and I'm happy to do as many interviews, as many fundraisers, as much volunteering as I can do. Because I feel that I'm capable of doing it. And that's what brings me fulfillment."

Yarovyk has found a supportive community in Vermont. He has many close friends, he said, and he adores his classes — German in particular. He plans to major in psychology so he can return to Ukraine one day and help people struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Recently, his best friend from home sent him a postcard of his hometown's cityscape. He held the postcard up to the screen during our Zoom and pointed out Lviv's deep blue night sky, the orange streetlights, the grey stone towers.

"Every single time I look at it, I cry," he said. "I was born here. I was raised here. I spent my entire life in the city."

He stared at the card. "Yes, this is how it feels. It feels just like home. It feels like this is home."

Broadcast at noon on Tuesday, October 25; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontedition.

Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Matt Smith worked for Vermont Public from 2017 to 2023 as managing editor and senior producer of Vermont Edition.