© Susanne Cholodnicki

365 Days of War in Ukraine

TU Berlin has a number of programs to provide support for researchers and students from the Ukraine. Here we report on four Ukrainians who fled their homeland and their experiences after the war broke out

The war in Ukraine began one year ago. “On 24 February 2022 it was not the alarm clock that woke us up. At about four in the morning a friend called us and said that Kyiv was being bombed and that the war had started,” recalls Professor Dr. Nataliia Zaiets, who had been living in Kyiv with her family and today works as a visiting scholar at TU Berlin. She is one of a number of researchers who have been able to continue their research as a result of funding provided by TU Berlin.

Maksym Babak, Illia Sharanov and Dr. Hanna Rudyk also fled Ukraine and are now living in Berlin and working or studying at TU Berlin. Ultimately it was science that opened a door for them and perhaps helped make the circumstances of their flight a little more bearable. Here these four Ukrainians share what they did back home, how they came to be at TU Berlin, and what they are working on here.

Four Ukrainians and their stories

Professor Dr. Nataliia Zaiets

Professor Dr. Nataliia Zaiets has been working as a visiting scholar at the Control Systems Group (Professor Jörg Raisch) since May 2022. She is funded by the Department of International Affairs of TU Berlin as part of the DAAD project "Ukraine digital".

“I lived in Kyiv with my husband and my two sons, who are eight and ten years old, and worked as a professor at the Department of Automation and Robotic Systems at the National University of Life and Environmental Sciences of Ukraine (NUBiP of Ukraine). At the same time, I was also a professor in the field of automation and computer technology of control systems at the National University of Food Technology. We had just bought a beautiful new apartment in 2021 and were leading a stable and regular life: work, school, football club, art school, swimming pool and so on. On 24 February 2022 it was not the alarm clock that woke us up. At about four in the morning a friend called us and said that Kyiv was being bombed and that the war had started. While there had always been news about the possibility of an attack by the Russians, no one really believed this would happen in the 21st century. When we left Kyiv, everyone was sure that the hot phase would be over in two weeks at most and we could return home. We left Kyiv on 25 February, first to friends in Moldova, near the border with Ukraine. After three weeks of fighting, it became clear that this war would last a long time, so at the end of March we decided to flee to acquaintances in Germany. I wrote to the Department of International Affairs at TU Berlin and as a result of my academic work I was offered the opportunity to conduct scientific research at the Control Systems Group, headed by Professor Jörg Raisch. TU Berlin provided me with an office and the necessary equipment and also paid me a scholarship.

Since May, I have published several academic papers as part of my research and have spoken at various international conferences. Thanks to the support of the DAAD and TU Berlin, it was possible to conduct the “Ukraine digital” project between June and December 2022. Within the framework of this project, I held online lectures for students from NUBiP. Together with the Department of International Affairs we applied to the DAAD to extend this project and last week we were informed about the extension of funding. For students who are now in Ukraine, it is very important to feel European support. This gives them both moral confidence that Europe has not forgotten them and financial support in this difficult time!

In the first months, we were very depressed because we could not believe that there was war in our country. During almost a year of hostilities in Ukraine, many of our friends have been killed or wounded. Many people who fled abroad from the war in Ukraine can probably understand our feelings: Sometimes you feel like a traitor, your conscience torments you that you are not doing enough for victory, sitting the crisis out in a quiet atmosphere. We are caught between two worlds all the time: Here you see people going to work, smiling, relaxed, and at this time many friends and acquaintances are sitting without light or in bomb shelters because of the rocket fire. Sometimes you don't even allow yourself to be happy or smile about something good. But when you see the serenity and smiles of your children, you realize that you are doing everything right.

The war has inflicted significant educational losses on us, the extent of which is difficult to define precisely. We are talking here not only about the schools, universities and libraries destroyed by the Russian invaders, but also about the destruction of our educational and scientific plans.

But the entire Ukrainian people believe that justice will prevail and with the help and support of the entire civilized world we will win this war and defend our independence and our European homeland

Dr. Hanna Rudyk

Dr. Hanna Rudyk, visiting scholar at the Institute of Art History and Historical Urban Studies. Funded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation's Philipp Schwartz Initiative.

"For the last twenty years I have been working for the Khanenko Museum in Kyiv. It hosts the largest and most valuable collections of European, Asian, and ancient art in Ukraine. I worked there as deputy director general for education and public programs and an Islamic art curator. In February 2022 I was busy preparing a major exhibition devoted to Varvara Khanenko, one of the founders of the museum. On the eve of the war, I visited one of five partner museums to select objects for the exhibition. A book about Varvara Khanenko was to be produced, and a major TV documentary was planned. From one day to the next, all that was over. When the war started, we moved the museum's collections on display into storage. We had preliminary plans for dismantling exhibitions. However, all cultural heritage in Ukraine is now under permanent threat! At the end of February, my family relocated to western Ukraine. I have three children, two of them are minors, seven and 15 years old, and my strongest instinct was to get them to safety. There, in Lviv, I started asking myself what is the most important thing I could do professionally? I have come to the conclusion that Russia's neo-imperialist war of aggression against Ukraine has exacerbated the need for research into the very foundations of Ukrainian culture, its habitual categories and rhetoric, both about itself and other cultures of the world.

Many museums of Islamic and Asian art in Western and Central Europe are paving the way for decolonization. It is time to start decolonial rethinking at the Khanenko Museum as well as at other museums and universities in Ukraine. I developed a research proposal and contacted different German institutes dealing with decolonization of culture.  I received a number of positive answers. For me, the most interesting offer was from Professor Dr. Bénédicte Savoy  and Dr. Andrea Meyer.. I was very impressed by the large-scale project work of the academic chair led by Professor Savoy and her incredible personal contribution to the field. The chair applied to the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation for a research fellowship for me and since September 2022 I have been a visiting scholar at the Chair of Modern Art History.

I actually arrived in Berlin in April 2022 as I initially had a short-term fellowship from the SPK Fellowship Program (note: SPK - Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz). None of this would have been possible without Bénédicte Savoy’s generous offer to allow my children and me to stay at her apartment when I first arrived here. I found schools for the children and since then I have been able to concentrate on my work. I see my key task during my time in Germany as developing a toolkit for a decolonial transition at museums in Ukraine. I think that when we come to reopen our museums one day, they won't be the same as before the war."

Maksym Babak

Maksym Babak has been studying Computer Science at TU Berlin since winter semester 2022/23. Initially, he received funding from TU Berlin’s emergency program for Ukrainians and will shortly receive a scholarship from the DAAD’s “Future Ukraine” program.

“I was studying Internet security at Karazin Kharkiv National University and leading a completely normal life. I lived with my parents and spent a lot of time with them. It’s a real blessing for me that I can speak German. I chose German because my plan was to study in Germany one day. However, after completing my school leaving exams I decided to remain in Ukraine. And now I find myself in Germany after all. I never thought that would happen. My university and my entire city have been destroyed by bombs.

I spent the first two months of the war in Kharkiv. At first, we sheltered in the basement of our building, but sooner or later we couldn’t bear it anymore and decided to remain in our apartment. When the fighter planes flew overhead the whole building shook. I can’t describe how terrified we were. When you find yourself in a situation like this, your mind just goes blank somehow. I don’t think it is possible for someone who has never experienced this to know what it feels like. I spent most of the time in the apartment and rarely went outside. It was only when we were driving through the city to escape that I saw the total destruction and many dead people - that was a shock. I cried a lot when I saw what had happened to my city. To what end? Why?

We left Kharkiv after two months and fled to people we knew in Lutsk in western Ukraine. Then in May 2022, my mother and I came to Germany. We first went to Stuttgart, where my mother still lives today. I contacted TU Berlin and asked someone to check my German level. The Modern Language Center at TU Berlin was really supportive in helping me get the language certificate I needed to apply to study here. I began my bachelor’s in Computer Science at TU Berlin in winter semester 2022/2023.

I am so happy to be a student here. I also get a lot of support from Transnational Education and International Knowledge Transfer with looking for somewhere to live, for example, or when applying for grants. I enjoy my studies, but I have to work really hard if I am to succeed. My university back home is completely destroyed and there is no chance for me to continue studying there. When I graduate from TU Berlin, I want to return to Ukraine and apply what I have learned in the area of research. My greatest dream and motivation is to set up and develop scientific centers for studying modern technologies and to provide help for everyone who needs it. The skills acquired at TU Berlin will provide the impetus for me to realize my dream."

Illia Sharanov

Illia Sharanov is doing his PhD at the Organic Chemistry / Synthesis and Catalysis Group led by Professor Dr. Martin Oestreich. He is supported by the Department of International Affairs of the TU Berlin

“Before the full-scale war started in Ukraine, I was doing my PhD research and studies at the Institute of Organic Chemistry in Kyiv and working as an organic chemist at a chemical company. Actually, my doctorate was supposed to be finished in 2022. But then on 24 February 2022 the Russian invasion started with bombs striking cities all over Ukraine in the morning. Nobody had really expected this to happen. I spent the first few days in a bunker, which I left only to go out and buy groceries, because of the continuous air-raid alerts and explosions. Then a couple of my friends and I decided to leave Kyiv and move to western Ukraine. It was a dangerous journey as we traveled by train and were constantly afraid of being hit by rockets. We went to Lviv and worked there as volunteers for four months, supporting soldiers in every way we could.

However, I realized that I want to continue and finish my PhD as it is an important part of my future career as a chemist. Moreover, as everything was closed at that time in Ukraine, I needed a job to support my father, my grandmother and myself. So I decided to contact various professors around the world and ask about research opportunities. Professor Dr. Martin Oestreich from TU Berlin was one of the few who answered me. And he didn't just answer, he provided me with a research stay at his group, arranged funding and has been supporting me constantly since. I then went to the military office in Ukraine and got a permit to leave the country to finish my PhD.

I keep in touch with my professor in Kyiv and hope to take my final examination via Zoom. The situation with energy and electricity is problematic in Ukraine because of Russian attacks. At my institute in Kyiv, there are power blackouts lasting for more than seven hours during the day and it is difficult to keep working under such conditions there. I hope to finish my PhD at the beginning of May 2023.

My family is still in Ukraine and it is hard for me as I cannot see them and miss them a lot. Sometimes it is difficult for me to concentrate on my work as my country comes under attack from Russia every day. I think about the situation in Ukraine and my people all the time. Especially, I think of our brave and strong soldiers who have been defending Ukraine for almost a year now, risking their lives constantly. Throughout the day I check my cell phone and read the news almost every hour. I do everything I can from where I am to support my family and my country.

When I finish my PhD, I am thinking of trying to get a postdoc position. Chemistry is important to me as it is my passion. Although it is really hard to make plans for the future right now, I am planning to return back home and continue working as an organic chemist with the valuable experience I am gaining right now."

#StandWithUkraine – Support offers at TU Berlin

Within just a few days of the start of the war, TU Berlin had already initiated a number of support measures to provide direct help for Ukrainian researchers and students. Members of the University, private individuals, businesses and foundations contributed approximately 90,000 euros to TU Berlin’s appeal campaign. Over the past 18 months, this money has been used to support students during their studies or help them with applications. Donations were also used to support visiting scholars. This funding is administrated by the Department of International Affairs, whose responsibilities also include distributing research funding to 30 Ukrainian scientists. International Scientific Cooperation has organized placements with suitable academic chairs at TU Berlin for most of these researchers.

“In Ukraine, cities are in ruins, universities and educational institutions have been destroyed. We cannot imagine what it must mean to have to flee our homes. At TU Berlin we have introduced a wide range of measures to support researchers and students. However, it is also important for us to be there for people in this situation. This is why we have also launched a number of programs, such as ‘Bridge IT,’ to help refugees in other areas of their lives,” says Professor Dr. Geraldine Rauch, president of TU Berlin. 

INTEGRA program

“Bridge IT” was set up for Afghan refugees with funding from the DAAD’s INTEGRA program and has now been expanded to include refugees from Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. The coordination for this offer as well as the entire INTEGRA program is the responsibility of Transnational Education and International Knowledge Transfer (INT TNB), the newest section within the Department of International Affairs at TU Berlin. “We offer specialist advising to help with preparing and implementing proposals for doctorates. We also offer German courses and there are special advising events and coaching to help find work in Germany,” says Agnieszka Zielinska, deputy team leader at INT TNB.

Eighteen students from Ukraine have been accepted to study at the University’s Preparatory School, where they can take preparation courses and examinations leading to an assessment test and the chance to study at a university in Germany. These students also receive INTEGRA funding as well as support from teachers at the Preparatory School. Starting summer semester 2023, a new round of language courses is planned for 15 refugees. The aim here is also to help participants integrate successfully into society as well as prepare them for university studies and teach them German for special purposes.

“Ukraine digital” and "Bridge Ukraine Digital"

In 2022, TU Berlin submitted two successful project applications to the DAAD’s special program “Ukraine digital – ensuring academic success in times of crisis.”

Firstly, the Chair of Entrepreneurship and Innovation Management and the Centre for Entrepreneurship set up a digital degree program for Ukrainian students at the National Technical University of Kyiv. Twelve academics from Ukraine have digitized their courses at TU Berlin for this purpose. In addition, existing digital courses in the Innovation Management, Entrepreneurship and Sustainability (IMES) master’s program will be subtitled in Ukrainian, made accessible to Ukrainian students and integrated into the curriculum.

The project "Bridge Ukraine Digital" supports four female university lecturers from Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odessa who fled Ukraine after the outbreak of the war and came to TU Berlin as visiting scholars. The aim of the project is to provide comprehensive support to enable these academics to continue teaching at their universities in Ukraine and establish long-term collaborations with related disciplines at TU Berlin. Support is to be provided on a subject-specific level, but also with a focus on didactics in the context of digital teaching.

“Future Ukraine”

INT TNB’s application to the “Future Ukraine” project was also successful. As part of this project, 15 scholarships will be awarded to refugees from Ukraine for up to 24 months. The scholarships are intended to train specialists and managers for reconstruction. In addition, these students will receive professional and linguistic support for their studies or doctorate, advising in the areas of family, residence law, etc., as well as expert psychological support to help them achieve success in their studies.

“IN2TU Berlin”

TU Berlin’s Academic Advising Service similarly provides extensive support for Ukrainian students. Its “IN2TU” program for visiting students is currently preparing 19 Ukrainians to start or return to studying.



Department of International Affairs