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Visiting Scholar Reveals Details of Narrow Escape, Life in Ukraine and Motivation to Help Other Refugees

Olha Nimko was on a family ski trip in Ukraine’s Carpathian Mountains when she learned Russian forces were invading her country’s capital.

Her colleague woke her up with a frantic 5 a.m. call to share the news. She knew there were tensions between the countries, but she never anticipated it would turn into a full-scale war. The February 2022 invasion shocked the world and sparked a war that has killed thousands of civilians and displaced millions of Ukrainians — including Nimko.

Nearly two years later, she is a visiting scholar in Virginia Tech’s Department of Political Science. She joined the university as an assistant research professor in August with help from the Center for Refugee, Migrant, and Displacement Studies and Global Strategic Services. Inspired by her own experiences and the stories of millions across the globe, Nimko, who taught law at a university in Ukraine, is using her new Virginia Tech role to address food insecurity among refugees.

Thanks in large part to a donation from the Cranwell International Center, Nimko and her 9-year-old daughter, Daryna, have a house in Blacksburg. Nimko’s husband and Daryna’s father had to stay behind in Ukraine because of a countrywide mandate forbidding men between the ages of 18 and 60 to leave.

In Blacksburg, Virginia Tech faculty and community members helped Nimko to make her new home. Volunteers moved furniture into her house, gave her food and a bike, and assisted with various tasks during Nimko’s summer relocation.

Also, Global Strategic Services, part of Outreach and International Affairs, helped Nimko navigate complex immigration regulations.

“From the beginning, there was a tremendous outpouring of university support to invite Olha to Virginia Tech,” said Belinda Pauley,  J-1 services program manager. “Her experience as a scientific researcher and practicing attorney, as well as her experience in food security, human rights protection, socially vulnerable citizens’ rights protection, and environmental law, made her an excellent candidate for her research work here.”

Nimko’s journey to Virginia was far from simple. She and her daughter still hear the bombing and wailing of air-raid sirens in their dreams, and the two constantly worry for the friends and family they left behind.

After the invasion, Nimko embarked on a two-day journey home to Zhytomyr — a city in the north of the western half of Ukraine. At times, it took 12 hours to travel 200 miles.  There, she was employed as an assistant professor of law at Polissia National University. Family members from Kyiv travelled to her home after the invasion. But Russia attacked Zhytomyr — the province’s administrative center and a major transportation hub — in the first days of the war.

Nimko’s family was forced to take shelter underground in the first days of the war. Pictured is her daughter, Daryna, sleeping. Photo courtesy of Nimko.

She and her family spent sleepless days and nights underground in the cold, just waiting for the bombing to stop in her region, which, according to statistics, occurred nearly 30 times a day.

“It was incredibly scary to hear the sounds of automatic gunfire and see Russian planes and helicopters flying over our city, randomly dropping bombs,” Nimko said. “They even broke into a house not far from my home, killing the owner.”

For Nimko, deciding to leave her country and family was the hardest part. Seeing the hospital where her daughter was born and the school she attended destroyed were factors in her decision. But at the time, her sleep-deprived mind found it difficult to make an evacuation plan.

That’s when Judit Sandor, a professor and mentor during her fellowship at Central European University in Budapest, proposed Nimko and her daughter evacuate Ukraine, and offered to help arrange the logistics. The university provided dormitory housing and three meals a day for Nimko and her daughter.

“She’s my mentor and I followed her advice,” Nimko said. “That was very important for me because I couldn’t make a decision. But I knew I needed to listen to somebody. As a child, my father told me to follow the advice of wise people. When she told me to flee, I grabbed my daughter and left my house within 15 minutes.”

She had to say goodbye to her husband. Farewell tears and the loud cries of a child are her most difficult memories. While her husband offered to drive his wife and daughter to the border, she decided it would be safer to take the train.

“He misses us, and we miss him,” Nimko said. “My daughter has a very close connection with her father. But we couldn’t stay in Ukraine.”

She and her daughter immediately fled by train to Lviv, a city in western Ukraine not far from Polish and Hungarian borders, where they spent the night at the station in below-freezing temperatures. The next morning, they took a bus to the Hungarian border, crossing it by foot. From there, a stranger offered to drive the group 300 miles to Budapest.

She quickly began searching for a job in Budapest and secured a 15-month position in the Environmental Policy Lab at ETH Zurich, a public research university in Switzerland, chaired by Rachael Garrett, a professor of environmental policy. The Swiss National Science Foundation provided funding through the Scholars at Risk program. Because Nimko was under severe stress, Nimko said Garrett made invaluable efforts to organize the position.

When a colleague asked her daughter what the scariest part of the invasion was for her, she replied “mommy’s eyes,” Nimko recalled through tears. After her appointment was over, Nimko decided it was still unsafe to return to Ukraine, and began searching for other opportunities.

“I saw a job opening at Virginia Tech and applied,” Nimko said, noting that if it were not for the opportunity, she and her daughter would have been forced to return to dangerous conditions.

Nimko said her research at Virginia Tech is focused on of food security among refugees — a growing crisis as “more than 80 percent of refugees globally face food insecurity.”

She is working on a survey to learn more about food insecurity in Ukraine. Since the war began, Russia has targeted the country’s power grids, leading to widespread power outages and making it extremely difficult for individuals to stay warm as well as keep and prepare food. Russian bombs also have targeted personal and commercial farms, destroying crops and equipment.

Nimko’s research has also focused on those displaced by climate change and other conflicts. Since the beginning of the fall semester, she has shared her story at Virginia Tech through a webinar series and chatted with students in a disaster resilience seminar.

Katrina Powell, who is founding director of the Center for Refugee, Migrant, and Displacement Studies at Virginia Tech, led the search for Nimko’s position earlier this year.

“We sent out a call and we got lots of applications,” Powell said. “We had three finalists. Olha was the person who really rose to the top for us because of the interdisciplinary nature of her work.”

Powell said from her experience working with Nimko, she is someone really eager to work.

“She’s done a lot of research about refugees’ ability to feed their families,” Powell said. “She’s continuing the important work she started in Zurich, but she’s also starting new work here. I see someone who’s very determined not only to do that work, but also to help tell the story of what’s happening in Ukraine with ordinary people.”

Olha Nimko, the CLAHS Displaced Scholar Research Fellow, and Katrina Powell, professor and director of the Center for Refugee, Migrant, and Displacement Studies. Photo by Kelsey Bartlett for Virginia Tech.

Laura Belmonte, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, was immediately supportive of providing the funding for a visiting scholar from Ukraine.

“I believe it is as important for the world to be brought to Blacksburg as it is for our faculty and students to go out into the world,” Belmonte said. “Dr. Nimko’s experience as a refugee is one that is sadly shared by millions of people across the globe. Providing her the opportunity to share that experience with the VT community and giving her a safe haven where she can continue her important research on the climate exemplifies our commitment to the ideals of Ut Prosim.”

Powell said securing additional supports was also crucial to bringing Nimko to the U.S.

“Visiting international scholars come to Tech all of the time, but then when you add the dimension of someone being displaced, the Cranwells’ support was key,” Powell said. “Because when someone is a refugee, they need additional supports. Being able to not only pay her salary, but also support her housing costs has been key.”

As the war drags on, Nimko is finding it difficult to remain optimistic about her country’s future.

“The war in Ukraine has global implications as Ukraine faces exhaustion, potentially leading to broader consequences for the entire world,” she said.

Olha Nimko with her 9-year-old daughter, Daryna. Photo courtesy of Nimko.

Nimko said she is grateful to Virginia Tech for giving her an opportunity to continue her research and to stay safe. She enjoys riding her bike in her free time and she is happy that her daughter is safe and adjusting to life in Blacksburg.

Still, she hopes to one day return to her home country.

“For now, the situation in Ukraine remains insecure,” Nimko said. “But if it gets better, I definitely want to rejoin with my husband.”

By Kelsey Bartlett

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