Exeter student helping Ukrainian refugees

Oleg Girnyk/Facebook

Oleg Girnyk, a first-year Medical Sciences student at the University of Exeter (Streatham Campus), has been helping Ukrainian civilians to escape warfare by facilitating transport from Poland to Portugal.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine began on 24 February, when President Vladimir Putin announced “a special military operation”. Since then, Ukrainians have experienced multiple air raids and the beiseigement of major cities like Kiev, Mauripol, Lviv (Western Ukraine), Kherson, Melitopol, and Berdyansk (Southern Ukraine).

There have been numerous civilian fatalities, with almost 2,200 Ukrainians killed in the beseiged city of Mariupol.

The Anchor caught up with Oleg to discuss his humanitarian work.

Could you give a brief overview of the work you’ve completed so far?

It began with my friend, Askold Shestunov, departing to Poland to join the ranks of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense. On his way there, he met an organiser of a refugee caravan to Portugal. 

She had the contacts to a Portuguese NGO that was willing to bring humanitarian aid and bring the refugees to Portugal. One issue she had is that she couldn’t speak English on the level that was needed to effectively communicate with the NGO, so Askold offered my help. 

I obviously agreed to help and was in charge of translating the messages received from the NGO to [the organiser] and then translating messages that she had for them. The messages involved all sorts of organisational matters, such as gathering points, lists of required humanitarian aid items, personal information of individual refugees, etc.

One of the most difficult parts of the job was that the NGO workers have persistently used voice messages with poor audio quality, which made it difficult to pin down some of the words that were said. Nevertheless, I did my best to translate with minimal loss of original meaning. We repeatedly asked them to send text messages to allow us to keep tabs of what has been said more efficiently, but unfortunately, the NGO workers, knowingly or unknowingly, have ignored this request.

In terms of successes, about 90 refugees are on their way to Portugal already. They have been collected from Warsaw and Lublin, where they embarked on the vehicles that brought the humanitarian aid.

The NGO is intending to repeat this route again after they finish accommodating the refugees in Portugal.

What is the next step for the refugees when they make it to Portugal? What challenges will they face?

When they arrive in Portugal, they will be received by a local Ukrainian delegation. This delegation will provide temporary accommodation for the refugees, as well as support for them while they adapt to their new home. 

The NGO has a direct contact with the prime minister of Portugal’s office, so the refugees will be receiving work tier visas on arrival. The NGO is in charge of aiding the refugees in finding a job within a week of their arrival, or at least so they claimed. They are also in charge of helping the refugees look for a permanent residence so that they would not feel like a burden on the receiving delegation.

The essential target is to make them functional members of society as soon as possible. The challenges for the refugees [are to] learn the language, find a suitable job, and find a permanent home.

Early on, you touched on some of the challenges you’ve faced in this process. How has your work impacted yourself? How have you managed to balance your efforts with your life here in the UK, as well as how has your family grappled with the situation?

I am a first-year Medical Sciences student. My curriculum is very heavily focused on self-study, so I have plenty of time to spare to do this for the benefit of my people.

Prior to the war, I worked as a translator for a couple of startups which included a game development company and an AI pharmacology company. Both were based in Kyiv, so as soon as the war started, those side jobs have been put on pause. I have about a year’s worth of cumulative experience as a Russian-English translator, so this was not interfering with my typical life too heavily.

What has really disrupted my usual life is the war itself. I am in constant stress with my eyes glued to my phone looking at news. Every time I see a message about a missile hitting Kyiv, I pray that it didn’t hit my neighbourhood and my parents are safe. Every morning I spend about an hour to just scroll through everything I missed while sleeping.

My parents prepared supplies of grain, long term storage food, and water in case anything happens. My father is a chemist by trade, so he has made plenty of molotov cocktails. He even managed to get a hold of a shotgun. Hopefully, he won’t have to use any of that.

Are you satisfied with the reaction of the West, particularly Britain, to the invasion? Both in the media and in politics.

The media and economic response of the West in general is unprecedented and something that I wholeheartedly support. Company after company leaves Russia, decreasing the potential tax Russia can collect to funnel into its war machine. The sanctions provided by the global community have doomed Russia to an economic default by mid-April, which will cut any hopes Putin had about a great Russian Empire.

Media-wise, Ukraine is essentially on everyone’s mind — all eyes are on us and our David vs Goliath struggle against Russia. I am grateful for this so that the barbaric invasion of Ukraine would not fall into obscurity like Russia’s invasions of Ichkeria and Georgia.

I am particularly amazed at the United Kingdom’s strong stance on defending Ukraine: the UK was one of the first to supply Ukraine with anti-tank missiles called NLAWs, Boris Johnson was one of the first to push [for] disconnecting Russia from the SWIFT banking system, the parliament of the UK has consistently supported the Ukrainian struggle for self-determination.

One of the most recent developments with turning down Russian oil and gas is also greatly appreciated. The UK will have to struggle to accommodate this change and that is what makes me respect this selfless decision even more. The UK sacrifices its own comfort of buying cheap Russian gas to allow Ukraine to live on independently.

I’ve read your article with the BBC. What was your experience like working with them?

Well, the BBC is just like any news company. They were mostly interested in me saying something eye-catching, rather than informative. Horror stories and tears over what I actually want to say.

What about your friends at the University of Exeter? What are the attitudes towards the conflict and the work you are doing?

Mostly, my peers don’t seem to care. Barely anyone seems to be interested in anything beyond the typical day-to-day, even among my friends. 

However, there have been two vigils for Ukraine gathered in the first week of the war. Hundreds of people gathered to support Ukraine. Even Russian students. Non-Slavic students who came usually study Politics, so they understand the gravity of the situation.

There are not a lot of people who have read the article about me, but the ones who did usually text me, supporting what I do.

How important is international solidarity with Ukraine? And why do you personally think students should think about the situation in Ukraine?

Solidarity just for the sake of solidarity is useless. It’s the actions done in solidarity that I care about. 

Donations, signing petitions, pressuring companies, etc. Simply changing your profile picture to a Ukrainian flag will not suddenly make Putin change his mind and pull his tanks out of Ukraine. I want the students to not only think about the war, I want them to think about how they can help stop it and act according to those thoughts.

Additionally, not just any petition. Only those that actually matter, actually make a difference. For instance, the petition to close the Ukrainian sky has gathered more than a million signatures and has pressured Congress to support the idea. Now, President Biden is pressured by Congress to help Ukraine by giving it jets or actually enforcing a no-fly zone.

How do you feel about the reaction of the university to the conflict? And is there anything the university can do in response to the conflict?

The reaction of the university has been rather… neutral.

On the first day of the war, I received an email that said: “We support you”. That’s about it. No events in support of Ukraine, no fundraisers for the refugees [nor the] army, no collection of humanitarian aid has been even considered by the university.

The university has a great potential to spread information on how students can help, but they have chosen to stay neutral.


Girnyk’s work is currently on pause due to the Ukrainian refugees reaching Portugal.

Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove anounced the Homes for Ukraine scheme on 14 March. Through this scheme, the UK public will be able to host refugees and receive £350 each month from government in return.

To register your interest, apply here.

A University of Exeter spokesperson said: “We stand with our fellow universities in condemning the invasion of Ukraine and calling for an immediate end to hostilities.

“We are committed to proactively working with our partners in government and higher education to support all of our affected staff and students. We have been in regular contact with the small number of Exeter staff and students who were working or studying in the affected countries and have supported them to move to the UK, or their home country, where appropriate.

“The university has written to its staff and students to update them on the support we are offering and to encourage our community to consider what they may be able to do to contribute to the agencies that are supporting those affected. You can find details on our dedicated Ukraine page.

“In addition, Falmouth and Exeter Students’ Union (SU) are collecting items to send to Ukraine. Please place any donations in the collection boxes in the SU space at Penryn Campus.  For a full list of what is needed see: https://www.thesu.org.uk/news/article/6013/Recent-developments-in-Ukraine-and-Russia