| Gleichstellungsbüro, Willy Brandt School of Public Policy, International, Studium

From Kharkiv to Erfurt: The story of an impressive young woman

War in Europe? Right on her doorstep? Valeriia Ziziukina could not have imagined that before. And even when the first detonations were heard in her Ukrainian home Kharkiv in February 2022 and her mother woke her up in the middle of the night, she did not think that this could be the beginning of something that could change her whole life and that of the Ukrainian people. "Sure, there was always a certain threat from Russia, which did not want to recognise Ukraine as a sovereign state, but I never believed that Putin would go that far," says the now 23-year-old. And then they came: the bombs, the destruction, the hatred, the violence. The "front" was suddenly only 80 kilometres away from her bedroom. What all this has to do with the University of Erfurt will be told here...

Valeriia lives with her mother and stepfather in a shared flat in Kharkiv. She has wonderful friends, studies German and English at the university – perhaps to become a translator one day. She has a good life. Her grandmother also lives nearby and is happy about her little vegetable garden. No one thinks about war. Until it comes.

"But then it quickly became clear to us that we had to get away first, that we had to get to safety," Valeriia remembers. And so, on 3 March 2022, she and her mother packed up the bare essentials – what you can carry with two hands – and set off in the direction of the west, to the Polish border. From there they will take a bus to Poland for a while until the worst is over. It is hard to say goodbye. Also because the stepfather is staying in Kharkiv. It is clear to the family that they would not let him cross the border. The men are needed as soldiers. But the stepfather encourages Valeriia and her mother: It will surely be over soon and then they will all return to their old lives. No one suspects at this point that they would not see each other again until today...

Arriving in western Ukraine, Valeriia and her mother find themselves at a train station. People upon people. All packed with what they can carry and save from home. They get on the bus – only it's not going to Poland, but to Germany. The beginning of, if you will, "lucky" coincidences and circumstances that will set the lives of the young woman and her mother on a whole new track.

"The bus took us to Bad Liebenstein in Thuringia," Valeriia recalls. The exhaustion of the passengers is great when they arrive – both physically and emotionally. But there is also a willingness to help in the town. The refugees are warmly welcomed, Mayor Michael Brodführer and his team organise host families where the Ukrainians can stay for the time being and take a deep breath. Valeriia and her mother, too. The two are immensely grateful and immediately start to help: The mother in the hospital, Valeriia supports the arrival of other compatriots as a translator, helps with organising – the German studies she had started in Ukraine prove to be infinitely helpful here. And when she's not doing that, she continues to work on her degree at the University of Kharkiv – her studies are now only online. We ask the young woman where she found the strength to do this. "I didn't even ask myself that question," she replies. "I couldn't let all the effort of the past years of study go to waste." She will graduate in December 2022. That gives her courage, gives her strength. The wife of the mayor of Bad Liebenstein also notices that the young woman is a very special person. She works at the University of Erfurt and makes Valeriia curious. The commitment, the language skills, the will to make a difference – that would also fit in well with studying for a Master of Public Policy at the Willy Brandt School of the University of Erfurt. Young people with similar ambitions come together here...

Valeriia thinks about it for a moment. The idea is tempting, but two things still need to be done: The "Babusya", the grandmother, has to be brought from Kharkiv, the financing of the studies has to be clarified. Even though the grandmother finds it difficult at first to give up her vegetable garden and her home, she finally comes. The war changes everything. The Konrad Adenauer Foundation helps her finance her studies with a scholarship. And so Valeriia starts her Public Policy Master's degree at the University of Erfurt in October 2022.

"It sometimes feels somehow unreal what has happened in the past year and a half," says the now 23-year-old. My whole life has changed. While her mother and grandmother still live in Bad Liebenstein – now in a small flat of their own – Valeriia now lives in Erfurt in a student hall of residence. And her school friend from Kharkiv is also in Thuringia now. That is a consolation, somehow. "For my mother and my grandmother it is perhaps different – they miss the old 'home' and the old flat, which – as of today – has not yet been destroyed by bombs, but is empty. But I feel at home in Erfurt in a certain way," says Valeriia. "Back when I started my studies in Ukraine, I thought I would go to Munich or Berlin one day and find a great job there. Now I've landed – actually through a string of coincidences – in Erfurt, a city I'd never heard of before, and I'm so glad I did. I feel good here, not least because of the university and the Brandt School. It's like a small family. A very colourful family. The campus is open to all the diversity, I experience good discussions, can participate in exciting projects, contribute my ideas and in the end also implement them. I like that." And so Valeriia is now also involved in the student council as well as the university's diversity advisory board.

What's next for her life? "I don't know. Basically, nothing is safe any more. Who would have thought that this war would last so long? The only thing I know is that the Ukrainians are a proud people and that they will not give up defending their freedom," says the young woman. And looks ahead. First of all, she wants to finish her degree. An internship after the next semester would be great. Somewhere where she can get involved in the field of migration, international cooperation. That would also be a job option. The main thing is to make a difference. Helping people, bringing them together, fighting for tolerance and peaceful coexistence. Valeriia's own history, her experiences, will certainly give her an advantage in the end. She is convinced of that. But also the seemingly endless strength that this young woman musters to "do her thing" and at the same time make a difference for others.

The past one and a half years have changed a lot for Valeriia Ziziukina. Turned her life upside down. Volodymyr Selensky? She did not vote for him at the time. "For me, he was someone who made political jokes, the actor from the series 'Servants of the People'. Now he is something like a 'hero'. What he was able to achieve impresses me as much as the Ukrainian people he is leading through these times. Both do not give up hope and believe that everything will be all right in the end. Hopefully, there is some of that in myself." And if she could wish for anything else? Valeriia doesn't have to think long: "That Ukraine becomes part of the European Union. I believe in the idea of a united Europe and I wish that Ukraine, the place where I have my roots, will one day become part of the European family."