Carrying Invisible Pain, Ukrainians At Chapman Try To Move Forward

A younger Shanna Schuckman (left) with her grandmother, sister and mother from a happier time in Ukraine. Now, Schuckman, a freshman at Chapman, feels for her aunt and uncle, who are still in Ukraine in the midst of a war zone. Courtesy of Schuckman.

Shanna Schuckman is caught in a double life.

Physically, the business administration major is under the blue skies and quiet of Orange County, trying to finish out her freshman year at Chapman University. But part of her has been trapped, across the world, in Ukraine. Trapped in a tiny cellar with her uncle and aunt and grandpa and little cousins. Trapped listening to the explosions of bombs across once-sparkling neighborhoods and the knocks of Russian soldiers on the front door. 

Schuckman wants nothing more than to help them. To reach them. But her two lives are drifting apart, and there’s no bridge she can cross.

“Every single day is pretty much a battle,” Schuckman said. “I’m constantly freaking out. I’m constantly anxious. I’m constantly going through a lot.” 

It’s a silent burden, a pain, shared by a select few Ukrainians on Chapman’s campus. It strikes deep, hitting a generational chord that brings their hearts back to Ukraine, to families or ancestors, hearing of thousands of civilian deaths and unspeakable war crimes. 

Now, they’re struggling with how to move forward. To live their lives. How can they even allow themselves to be happy, they feel, when their people are suffering? 

“I don’t remember the last time I laughed,” said Danylo Hauk, a Chapman alumni born in Ukraine. 

Erica Evans has this feeling she just can’t shake. 

It could’ve been me

Evans, the assistant director of annual giving campaigns at Chapman, grew up with a strong sense of identity. Her mother’s family, who is Jewish, grew up in Ukraine under the Soviet Union regime. On his 14th birthday, as a Jew, her mother’s brother would have been sent to the army at the front of the lines – then a death sentence. So they fled, ending up in the United States. 

Now, Evans watches interviews with exhausted and terrified Ukrainian mothers on social media. She sees them with their children, carrying their babies in their arms, trying to flee war-torn cities and escape the missiles. She thinks of her sister, who is a mother herself.

“Knowing my sister and her kids, and seeing these people on TV who are like us, exactly like us,” Evans said, “that could’ve been us.”

Evans (right) with her mother, a former Ukrainian refugee. Photo courtesy of Evans.

On Feb. 24, Russian President Vladmir Putin announced a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, with the intention to topple its government and prevent the country from joining Western alliance NATO. 

“It felt kind of like the end of the world,” said Paul Wolansky, the son of Ukrainian immigrants and an associate professor in Chapman’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts. “That everything was going to be obliterated.”

In the months since, NATO has reported tens of thousands of troops have died. Multiple Ukrainian cities have been turned to rubble. Civilians have largely been forced to fight back and face death or run and hide.

Hauk has family still in Lviv, a city bombarded by Russia, and friends fighting on the front lines in Mariupol. He doesn’t hear from them often. 

Hauk, who graduated with an MFA in film studies last year, wasn’t able to take any jobs for a couple of months.

“The shock and the constant stress,” Hauk said, “get you into a weird state of mind where you are, like, in a dreamy, half-conscious state.”

Growing up, Schuckmann would visit the city of Kherson every summer. She remembers the sunny skies at Skadovsk Beach, her favorite place in Ukraine. She remembers the playgrounds. The bazaars. She remembers everyone walking everywhere, constantly. 

The streets are emptier now. The skies are filled with smoke. 

A grown-up Schuckman during a happier time. Photo courtesy of Schuckman.

A few months ago, Schuckman was on FaceTime with her uncle when a missile flew by their house. 

“Get down!” she remembers him screaming. 

She’s heard, through her mother, about Russian soldiers banging on her aunt’s front door, saying they would kill the children in the house and rape the women. 

“Every day, there’s always bad stuff,” Schuckman said.

Schuckman couldn’t talk about it without bursting into tears until early April. She’s normally extroverted – she’s on Chapman’s golf team and a member of a sorority. But for a month, she found herself unable to go to social events, unable to even drag herself out of bed for classes some days. 

Jeni Do Carmo, a data specialist in Chapman’s Human Resources department, has never been to Ukraine. But her grandparents are from Lviv, displaced during World War II, and she feels like they’re her people. 

A baby Do Carmo with her Ukrainian grandparents. Photo courtesy of Do Carmo.

For weeks, she was consuming and sharing as much as she could about the war on social media. 

“I think I kind of got obsessed … eventually, I realized it was taking an emotional and physical toll, health-wise,” Do Carmo said.

But it’s hard to stop.

“With something so awful going on, how can I be directing my feelings or attention towards anything else?” she said. 

A couple of months ago, Evans had a conversation with her mother, imploring her they should be doing more. The Ukrainians are their people, Evans said. 

“She was like, ‘I agree, but what?’” Evans said. “And I was like, ‘I don’t know.’”

Even with donating and spreading awareness via social media, it’s hard for Ukrainians at Chapman to feel like they’re truly making a difference. There is a sense of guilt, Hauk said, for not being physically there to help in Ukraine. But that guilt can be channeled, he said. 

“You can lead your life, basically, by paying back what the citizens of Ukraine … have paid with their lives in blood and trauma,” Hauk said. 

Protestors in London rally against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Photo courtesy of Garry Knight, WikiMedia Commons.

Donating does go a long way, Wolansky said, when there are thousands in Ukraine who don’t know where their next meal may be coming from. And in conversations with some of his mother’s family, who remain in Ukraine, any broadcasting of support can actually be hugely impactful. 

“It really supports their feeling of like, it’s worth it to get up in the morning,” Wolansky said. “Even though they have to get up and look at wrecked city blocks … the fact that they know that we’re in their corner, that we have their back, that we’re behind them, keeps them going.”

Each is trying to move forward here, while keeping a presence of mind to Ukraine. Hauk and Wolansky call for the public to keep following the war and lobby politicians to provide aid to Ukraine. Do Carmo is still trying to find a way to balance her news intake. So has Evans, who senses there’s a much larger scope to the war than simply Russia-Ukraine. 

“It’s really given me this other perspective, a real feeling of, ‘Tomorrow’s not guaranteed,’” Evans said. 

Schuckman, meanwhile, has started therapy, and said that’s helped greatly. 

Some days will be worse than others. But she’s learning to try to have good days again, too. 

“Some days I wake up and I’m just like, really sad, and it all kinda gets to me,” Schuckman said. “And other days, I wake up and I’m like, ‘Let’s friggin’ turn this around.’”

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Luca Evans is a senior broadcast journalism major at Chapman University and co-editor of ChapBook Magazine for the spring 2022 semester. He enjoys sports, writing, sportswriting, and most of all annoying his co-editor.