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Published:  8 Jul 2022

One call or message can change someone’s destiny or give them hope

An interview with Ukrainian MSCA postdoctoral fellow Maryna Shevtsova.

Maryna Shevtsova, Ukrainian MSCA postdoctoral fellow

Maryna Shevtsova is an MSCA COFUND EUTOPIA-SIF postdoctoral fellow at the Sociology Department of the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, and a senior FWO fellow at KU Leuven, Belgium. She was a Swedish Institute postdoctoral fellow at the University of Lund (2020) and a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Florida, USA (2018/19). Her book LGBTI Politics and Value Change in Ukraine and Turkey: Exporting Europe? was published with Routledge in 2021.

Could you tell us a little bit about your research?

As part of the MSCA COFUND EUTOPIA-SIF programme, my research looks at “anti-gender campaigns” in Georgia and Ukraine. More precisely, I explore various forms of resistances that exist in these countries against advancements for LGBTI rights and gender equality. For this, I look at all kinds of protests and campaigns organised by the Church and religious groups, right-wing politicians, and other conservative actors, especially when they try to disrupt an LGBTI or women’s rights events, or when they promote what they define as “traditional family values”.

Another big part of my research in the new circumstances is related to the war. Centre-stage to this is the situation of LGBTI people during wartime, both in Ukraine and abroad, on transnational solidarity of LGBTI organisations in Europe, problems of LGBTI refugees and displaced people, and other gender aspects of the war in Ukraine.

Researching while your country is being attacked must be immensely difficult. How do you cope?

I think like many other Ukrainians, I find keeping myself busy is the most effective solution. The first weeks were the hardest. To avoid scrolling through the news or texting home all the time, we had to keep our hands full. So I attended protests and went to the places where help with sorting donations or humanitarian aid was needed.

But pretty soon I figured that I can be more useful if I do what I know best: research, public speaking, writing texts, giving interviews, in other words, presenting our point of view to the world and convincing as many people as possible to stand with Ukraine.

I try not to say “no” to any opportunity to speak for Ukraine, be it an academic conference or a platform at a Pride Parade, a podcast, or a tiny commentary for a small newspaper. If I can change one person’s mind with this, it is already worth it.

My only exception is Russian media. Though some journalists claim that they represent news portals that are in the opposition to the regime, I feel it is against my principles to legitimise their work and talk to them. They are welcome to read our texts in Ukrainian or English and quote them if they like.

You have been very active in helping researchers from Ukraine. Could you tell us a little bit more about the initiative and how you got involved?

At the moment I am involved in three academic or semi-academic initiatives. The first one, Ukrainian Global Scholars (UGS) has been active for several years already and I got involved with them as a mentor during my Fulbright Fellowship in the US.

UGS is a non-profit organisation that selects around 50-60 bright Ukrainian teenagers from modest backgrounds every year and then mentors them for several months before they apply to the best US and European boarding schools and universities on full scholarships. Our kids went to Yale, Harvard, Princeton… I am proud to have mentored four great students over the last four years who all now study abroad on full stipends! In exchange they commit to come back to Ukraine after their studies and contribute to rebuilding the country.

UGU, Ukrainian Global University, came out of UGS (and was founded partially by the same people) after the large-scale invasion in February 2022. Our aim is to assist as many Ukrainian students and scholars as possible with relocation to universities across the world, either to study, to work or to have a visiting fellowship.

Since March 2022, we received more than 2,500 applications – I volunteered as a reviewer and as an interviewing admissions officer – and now we are working hard to process the applications and to make sure that all good candidates start the next academic year in a country where they will be safe and can fully develop their potential.

Finally, I am also the national coordinator for ScienceForUkraine in Slovenia. This initiative collects and disseminates information about support opportunities for graduate students and researchers directly affiliated to an academic institution in Ukraine. This initiative has been particularly impactful in larger countries with wider research environments. My colleagues in other countries are doing amazing things and the database is growing every day; there have been many great placements already.

When helping researchers from Ukraine, what are some of the most common needs and wishes you hear?

The first and main concern of Ukrainian researchers is probably not very different from the rest of Ukrainians: safe housing and, where this is possible, basic resources to continue their everyday lives and work.

Take my mother, for example. She is a university professor and lives in a city that has not been damaged much. Like many of my colleagues, she continues to work and teach online. There are also researchers who moved abroad and teach from there, some already on visiting fellowships and some still looking for an affiliation.

It is always appreciated if the application and selection process for Ukrainian researchers or scholars displaced by war is somewhat simplified as, unfortunately, they are not always in the position to complete long applications and draft new elaborate research projects. Fee waivers for conferences or small travel grants as well as extended deadlines would be very helpful. For many male colleagues, of course, this is not an option given the Ukrainian ban for men between the age of 18 and 60 to leave the country. For them, non-resident fellowships or other kinds of support that can be provided from a distance would be the most beneficial.

Another wish of many of my colleagues is the need for sensitivity when discussing the topic of the war in Ukraine. Unfortunately, it is still often the case that the discussion is held without Ukrainians in the room; having Russian and Ukrainian scholars on the same panel might also not be a very good idea.

I recently attended a conference, where I was the only Ukrainian in a large hall and listened to the keynote address of a well-positioned Western scholar in the field which made reference to “privileged Ukrainian refugees” as opposed to the refugees from the MENA region. I was touched when my Polish and Czech colleagues stood up for Ukrainians and challenged this statement, but I still find such precedents highly problematic in academia and believe we must talk about them.

Do you have any advice for other fellows who want to help?

Please, do not try to help everyone and do everything. This is impossible. Instead, do what you do best. If it is doing your job and giving a small part of your salary as donation – great. If it is sorting donations or asking your university to open new positions for Ukrainians – fantastic. You can translate some documents, play with kids of Ukrainian refugees, accompany a Ukrainian to a doctor that does not speak English – this is all helpful!

Do not underestimate the importance of your help. You might think you did not do anything special but sometimes one call or a message sent are enough to change someone’s destiny or give someone hope. Two months ago, a friend of mine “just” forwarded a message from an Austrian colleague to me, and I “just” put this colleague in contact with my friend-activist in the Ukraine. As a result, money was collected to provide food and shelter for 30 displaced LGBTI Ukrainians for a month.

At the same time, as I know that this text will be read mostly by other researchers like myself, I would like to remind you: don’t forget to take care of yourself, too. People who have less often tend to give the most. But burnt out, exhausted volunteers is the last thing we need now. As they say on planes: put the oxygen mask on yourself first before helping others.

MSCA stands with Ukraine

Earlier in May, the European Commission launched MSCA4Ukraine, a new initiative part of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions to support displaced scientists from Ukraine.

With a total budget of €25 million, MSCA4Ukraine will provide fellowships for doctoral candidates and post-doctoral researchers.

Scientists who will receive support through this scheme will be able to continue their work in academic or non-academic organisations in in EU member states and countries associated to Horizon Europe. The scheme will also allow them to re-establish themselves in Ukraine when it will be possible to rebuild the country’s research and innovation capacity.

Published:  8 Jul 2022