Russian Invasion Disrupts Life for Ukrainian Students

Changes in status of visas are sought to allow the 30,000 Ukrainian students in the U.S. to reduce course loads and accept jobs off-campus

Tanya Zhurman, a freshman at Columbia University from Ukraine, was scheduled to start an unpaid internship on Feb. 24, the same day that Russia invaded her home country.

With the outbreak of war, she has put the internship on hold indefinitely and pivoted from her political science major to political activism – organizing and attending anti-war rallies, spreading the word about how people in New York can aid her country and supporting family and friends back home.

 Tanya Zhurman, on how the situation in Ukraine is worsening. 

“I’m not able to sit in my classes,” Zhurman said in an interview. Professors have been supportive, telling her to focus on her health and “everything that I can do for my country and that we’ll figure it out with school,” she said. 

This still leaves Zhurman, who is from Chernihiv, Ukraine, 60 miles from the Russian border,  in a precarious position. Like many international students, she is on an F-1 student visa, which requires her to be a full-time student and limits her employment to on-campus for a maximum of 20 hours. 

To help the 30,000 Ukrainians enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities, 175 organizations that advocate for immigrants and Ukrainians are asking the Biden administration to allow students from the war-torn nation to apply for Special Student Relief, which would authorize on- or off-campus work and reduced course loads. The status was created for students already present in the U.S. when their country suffers a war or a disaster. 

The organizations are also asking for Temporary Protected Status, or TPS and Deferred Enforced Departure, or DED. These statuses provide protection from deportation and authorization to work in the United States for a temporary amount of time, as long as the designation is in place. SSR, TPS and DED are blanket protections, as opposed to a case-by-case or individual-by-individual basis. It would allow for students nearing the end of their visas to stay in the U.S. and work legally. 

 Lee C. Bollinger, president of Columbia University, said in an email on March 2, that the school stands “ready to support all members of our community whose lives have been upended by this war, particularly our Ukrainian and Russian students who are facing a bewildering and uncertain road ahead.”

Tanya Zhurman, a Ukrainian freshman at Columbia University “There are heavy fights going on in my hometown. Literally people I know can die any second.” New York City, NY. Wednesday, Mar 1, 2022. (Aina de Lapparent Alvarez)

Tanya Zhurman, a Ukrainian freshman at Columbia University “There are heavy fights going on in my hometown. Literally people I know can die any second.” New York City, NY. Wednesday, Mar 1, 2022. (Aina de Lapparent Alvarez)

Natalie Pawlenko, the Ukrainian National Women’s League of America’s president, is one of the signatories. Formed in 1925, the organization has worked on advocating for Ukrainians in the U.S. “When we were first approached to sign the letter, we immediately jumped on it,” she said. 

Pawlenko said there is an urgent need to change the migration policy for Ukrainian students because the current policies are not helpful to a person whose home country is in the midst of crisis.

Zhurman supports the Special Student Relief. She does have a full scholarship in which a meal plan is included but was relying on her family to cover miscellaneous expenses such as transportation and clothes. She said that even if the war stopped today her family will not have money. “It’s not only I cannot ask them for money, I’ll also have to provide financial support to them. So I will definitely need more money.” She said she’d ideally work for companies related to Ukraine “so that I can, at the same time, earn money and help my country.”

Luiza Maharshuk, a 24-year-old dance student at Peridance Center in the East Village, is in a more precarious position, as she relies financially on her parents. She is from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, which is currently surrounded and under siege by Russian troops. Her parents, who work in the arts, have fled to the western part of the country. “There is no work right now,” Maharshuk said in an interview. “There’s no culture going on.”  

Maharshuk, who came to New York in 2019 to pursue an acting career, is attending classes as usual. “I believe for my parents, they wouldn’t want me to just sit, be sad, just don’t do nothing,” she said. “For them, it would be the best if I was doing something proactive.”

With her graduation looming in June, Maharshuk has contacted an immigration lawyer because she is ineligible for a one-year work visa available to international students who graduate from certain academic programs. “I don’t want to break the law,” she said.

Luiza Maharshuk as Wendy in Peter Pan. Kharkiv, 2014 (courtesy of Luiza Maharshuk)

Luiza Maharshuk as Wendy in Peter Pan. Kharkiv, Ukraine 2014 (courtesy of Luiza Maharshuk)

Maharshuk said she is hoping that the Special Student Relief, TPS and DED are approved soon but her lawyer told her that may take years to happen. There are currently around half a million individuals in the U.S. under TPS or DED status.

Meanwhile, Maharshuk is keeping calm. “I can control my emotions, not letting myself go into deep, deep, dark thoughts,” she said. For now, her immediate family, relatives and friends are safe. “You can reconstruct all the buildings,” she said. “The most important thing is to save the lives of people who are around you.”

Map of Ukraine. (CIA)

Shortly after this article was published, the Biden administration announced it will grant Ukrainians in the US Temporary Protected Status, shielding them from deportation and giving them work permits for 18 months, that could be renewed. TPS isn’t a pathway to permanent residency or citizenship.