Chris Schulz Published

Small Morgantown Community Grapples With War In Ukraine

A group holds up a Ukranian flag on the left, as well as a United States flag on the right. A man in the middle of the group wears military fatigues. There is a group of children seated on the floor in front.
Araiah Ben Yehuda stands amidst the small Ukranian-Russian community that came out to honor him in Morgantown Jan. 5, 2024.
Chris Schulz/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, sparking a new wave of fighting in a conflict that stretches back at least a decade. 

On a recent Friday night, a small gathering of about five families got together in the community center of an apartment complex in Morgantown. Young women wore flower crowns with ribbons cascading off of them. Intermixed with English, you could hear snippets of Ukrainian. 

The group gathered to show their appreciation to Araiah Ben Yehuda, who recently arrived from the front lines in Ukraine. 

Originally from the United Kingdom, Ben Yehuda moved to Israel in the 1990s where he served as a police officer until the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. Barring a visit to Israel at the outbreak of that country’s war against Hamas, Ben Yehuda has been on the front lines for almost two years and said it was time for a break.

“They just invited me to come to Morgantown,” he said. “I told him that I needed time to rest from the war, and they asked me to come over.”

Ben Yehuda said he appreciates the calm of West Virginia, although he was a little taken aback to find himself amongst Ukranians so far from the front lines.

“I knew I was coming to Morgantown, but I didn’t expect an evening like this, meeting with fellow Ukrainians,” he said. “It’s a nice feeling that you feel wanted, but being in the center of attention is hard for me. My body is here, but my mind is still back in Ukraine fighting, so it’s hard for me.”

For Ukranians living in Morgantown like Valeria Gritsenko, Ben Yehuda is a glimpse into the military reality of the war. 

“I haven’t heard directly the military perspective,” she said. “This has been very useful for me to hear that the war is going okay. It’s not easy. It’s very tough and difficult, and there are still problems with weapons supplies, but morale is high, and everyone is determined to win.”

Gritsenko is an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at West Virginia University. Almost all of the members of the small Ukrainian community were attracted to Morgantown by the university. 

Originally from the city of Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine, near the Russian border, Gritsenko has lived in Morgantown for more than 10 years after coming to the university. Gritsenko said she gets more of the civilian perspective on the conflict from her friends and family, when she can.

“They are getting tired of the war, especially in this holiday season,” she said. “When I last talked to friends in Ukraine, the nerves are very frazzled by all the sirens and bombings and they’re just hoping that the war will end sooner rather than later, but they have no doubt that they will win.” 

Gritsenko’s husband, Sergiy Yakovenko, likened Ben Yehuda to a medieval knight and said it was amazing to meet someone dedicated to defending his home country. Yakovenko hopes his work at the university with biomedical research into new prostheses will help recovery efforts, but he and others need the war to end first.  

“Different types of prosthetics that would be able to communicate with the nervous system and prosthetic device and enable more, really kind of intuitive control of the device and be more like a real hand,” he said. “It’s a problem not only in Ukraine, but here, just as much of a problem for all veterans who don’t have adequate solutions for their disability.”

A Ukranian flag, with blue on top and yellow on bottom, as well as a traditional tryzub or trident in the top left corner. In the background can be seen some of the people that attended the gathering.
A Ukranian flag on display at the Jan. 5, 2024 gathering in Morgantown in honor of Araiah Ben Yehuda.

Credit: Chris Schulz/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

There is a growing frustration that international attention has lost focus on the Ukrainian conflict as it stretches into another year and new issues arise. 

Yakovenko’s parents, Mykhailo and Vira, relocated to Morgantown a few months after the war. He said their experience and his struggle to get them out of the country has left him dealing with post-traumatic stress.

“It’s difficult to resolve. It’s something that we will have to deal with with the whole nation of Ukrainians and people who were exposed to this war,” Yakovenko said. “But my parents managed to get out.”

With help from Gritsenko, Vira explains that despite the distance and being in the U.S. for almost two years, her thoughts and her life are still in Ukraine. 

“Here, we live our life in Ukraine vicariously through the internet,” Vera said. “We just keep watching for everything, all the events that are happening over there, especially in the holiday times. We saw that the 138 buildings were destroyed in this big last bombardment in Kharkiv, and we worry about all the people that are left without a roof over their head in winter.” 

Mykhailo adds that he finds it very hard to wait out the war, and live with the constant pressure. 

“I would really like it to be over sooner rather than later, and ask the Americans who support Ukraine to continue supporting Ukraine, because Putin will not stop at Ukraine and if he’s allowed to win there, he will just roll over other countries,” he said.

Although not Ukrainian, Julia Khazajeva has integrated into the small, local community. She was previously a journalist in Russia, but unwilling to support the war effort, she fled with her family in 2022. 

“I just met several people who helped me and an opportunity opened right in Morgantown,” she Khazajeva said. “But I really had another opportunity to get to Washington, for example, but those moments I wanted to have something peaceful and really quiet, and Morgantown is a blessed place we found.”

Like Ben Yehuda, Khazajeva is grateful for that peace. But she and the rest of this small community live with the daily reminders that their friends and family back in Ukraine and Russia live a very different reality. Their biggest concern is that if Ukraine falls, that will only be the beginning of a broader, international conflict.

“What I keep repeating to my friends over here is that if we stop providing weapons to Ukraine, guys, Russian soldiers will go further,” Khazajeva said. ”They will go to Lithuania, Poland, even Germany. I know Russian culture. I know how these people think from inside. They will not stop.”

Ben Yehuda plans to continue traveling before returning to fight in a few weeks. In February, it will be three years since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, and the group that came out to honor Ben Yehuda are left wondering what will face him when he returns to the front lines, and what fate has in store for their homeland.