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College students in Ukraine prepare for their future during a threat from Russia

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

People here have a lot to be anxious about right now. More than 100,000 Russian troops are on the border. The U.S. is comparing the Russian threat with the Cold War, and volunteers are signing up to defend Ukrainian cities if need be. And on top of all that, there's a bad COVID-19 surge here. Now, imagine you're a college student living through all this. You're supposed to be free to explore, to dream about what you want your life to be. But that's a luxury right now.

ALINA SEMENOVA: It's pretty hard to plan when you're living next to Russia.

MARTIN: But a small group of students in Kyiv did make plans to meet us near their school, Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, at a tiny place called the Vagabond Cafe.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: So if you - 'cause I can...

MARTIN: Inside, the walls are decorated with beat-up American license plates, and students balance their coffees and laptops on tiny tables. Our students make their way inside one at a time.

Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Good evening.

MARTIN: Good evening.

They are Daria Shevchenko (ph), Veronica Kukharchuk (ph) and Sofia Kehkuv (ph), all between the ages of 17 and 20, all from Kyiv. They're studying marketing, human rights, international law. And just as they finish introducing themselves, a fourth young woman walks in. She peels off her coat and beanie cap and shakes out her blonde hair. She sits at the edge of the group, but then the others all urge her forward towards the microphone.

SEMENOVA: I'm Lina (ph).

MARTIN: Lina, nice to meet you. Can you tell me your last name, Lina?

SEMENOVA: Semenova (ph) and I'm a second-year law student, so I study law, both national and international law as well.

MARTIN: And are you from Kyiv, like these guys?

SEMENOVA: I'm from Crimea. So, yes, I have a lot to share.

MARTIN: Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, so, yes, Alina Semenova has a lot to share. But when I ask how everyone is feeling about the current moment, it's Daria who speaks up while fidgeting in her chair.

DARIA SHEVCHENKO: I felt a little bit anxious. I use all these anxiety tricks, tricks that...

MARTIN: What's an...

SHEVCHENKO: Tricks that can help you with your....

MARTIN: Help you with your anxiety.

SHEVCHENKO: Yes. Yes. Yes.

MARTIN: What are your tricks?

SHEVCHENKO: For example, I ask a question, what can I do now? If I can do something, for example, to make international passport, I go and do this.

MARTIN: Like, keep occupied, keep busy.

SHEVCHENKO: Yes. Yes, not concentrate on this situation because it will be crazy.

VERONICA KUKHARCHUK: Well, I can relate. I'm Veronica. I can relate to...

MARTIN: This is Veronica here - curly haired, wearing a red sweatshirt and sneakers.

KUKHARCHUK: My family and I, we developed some kind of plan. We just discussed this thing because I think it's very important that we should not just only be reading this and know newspapers and posts and just panic over and over and over. But we should discuss it more calmly and develop some strategy and a lot of options - what to do if, for example, if Russia are really going to - is going to invade Kyiv...

MARTIN: Alina said her mom called the other day, and there was something different in her voice.

SEMENOVA: Now she recorded the voice message to me yesterday, and she said, if you plan to, like, move around Ukraine - because I really travel a lot and I came from leave yesterday - she said, please keep your international passport with you because no one really knows what is going to happen. And this is what is - what scared me a lot yesterday because my mom never panicked, and she did yesterday.

MARTIN: Then the conversation shifts away from this hypothetical war to the one that is actually happening in the east, where Russian-backed separatists took over in 2014 and are still fighting today. More than 10,000 people have died as a result. Sofia tells me about her friend in Luhansk whose apartment was destroyed by a bomb.

SOFIA KEHKUV: It's a big tragedy that the war is going for eight years, more than eight years, especially there. It's every day, every month, and we need to remember that it's all people. So it's the main problems that we can lose of our, like, nation.

MARTIN: Alina has already suffered that loss in a certain way. She was 12 years old when Russia took Crimea.

SEMENOVA: When all of this was happening, people and my classmates were coming up to, like, each other and say, who are you standing - like, who are you standing for - Ukraine or Russia? And people, they're, like, completely divided, and these are, like, 12 years old. But they were trying to tell us that nothing is going to happen, nothing is going to change. Maybe the flag outside the school is going to change, but, like, inside of the school, everything will stay the same. But it was a complete lie. We didn't have Ukrainian language and history in our curriculum no longer. And I used to be in an English-speaking class, and we had, like, American flag all over our room. And guess what? It was completely, like - I don't know how to say - it was painted all white. So, like, America is now the biggest, like, enemy of Russia and Ukraine as well...

MARTIN: Someone painted over the flag.

SEMENOVA: Yes, because, like, why would you have the symbol of the enemy country right in your class?

MARTIN: Alina's family is all still back in Crimea. But her world is broader now, and she's got a choice to make.

SEMENOVA: Whether I should stay here and - I don't know - pray or wait for my family to come here if anything happens. But they cannot, for example, transport all of my grandparents because they cannot physically move across the border between Russia and Ukraine. Or should I go there and be, like, on one side of whatever is going to happen, but to be with my family because I have no one, like, from my family in Kyiv or any other cities of Ukraine? So, like, what should I do right now?

MARTIN: And when Alina says this, it's clear she's speaking for all of them.

SEMENOVA: We all just want peace, and this is so simple. We want to wake up every morning and to know that we can plan in three weeks and not be sick by COVID and killed or occupied by any country.

MARTIN: And really, is that too much to ask?

(SOUNDBITE OF LIAM THOMAS' "BITTER FEELING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Reena Advani is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition and NPR's news podcast Up First.