LARAMIE — As Ukrainian forces mark two months of defending their homes and homeland against a full-scale Russian invasion, those in Wyoming with ties to their country are fighting their own battles from half a world away.
The Laramie community has been brought closer to the conflict through a series of rallies, educational events and fundraisers aimed at helping the Ukrainian army and people. At the center of many of them is Ukrainian exchange student Anastasiia Pereverten, who came to the University of Wyoming at the beginning of the semester to study abroad.
For Pereverten, advocating for Ukraine has become a full-time job on top of her obligations as a student. One of her greatest battles has been educating those around her about a country many in the United States know very little about.
“(During) the rallies, we address a huge amount of attention and time toward informing people about the culture (and) the demographics of Ukraine,” Pereverten said.
Since Russia escalated the war with Ukraine by launching a full scale invasion Feb. 24, Pereverten has been featured in the Boomerang, and her story has spread and been reported by other news outlets around Wyoming and beyond. She’s been approached by reporters from ABC and USA Today. She’s coordinated rallies with students, professors and staff from the university and gave a lecture on Ukrainian culture and her own experience and insights of the war.
“For the first three days, everyone was so numb about (the war),” Pereverten said about the beginning of the invasion. “Nothing was happening, (and) no one was reacting. In five or six days people became more and more supportive.”
Up until the university went on spring break, Pereverten was skipping classes because she was so focused on what was going on in her home country.
Allen Gonzales-Willert, a Laramie resident who spent two years teaching English in Sokal, Ukraine, had a similar experience.
“I couldn’t get through the day — I just started crying, which never happens,” Gonzales-Willert said of trying to work during those first few days. “I don’t like the idea of crying at work and I usually try to keep my mind off of things.”
Pereverten eventually met Gonzales-Willert and Katherine Fitch, who also worked in the Peace Corps. They organized a rally in support of Ukraine, and as the word of their efforts spread a group of advocates began to take shape.
“I feel like some people only have the idea that you can only understand this if you are Ukrainian,” Gonzales-Willert said. “I don’t feel like this.”
Students began making buttons and T-shirts, and many approached Pereverten with ideas on how to help her country. Along with the rallies, people began creating resources to point people to where they can donate to humanitarian and military efforts. One class at the university held a tutorial on how to make a traditional Lviv cheesecake and raised $200 in donations from students in the process.
Residence halls shared fliers with information on the war, and campus groups are hosting an educational documentary screening Friday.
“Not all of the results are tangible now. Many of them are,” Pereverten said. “Students started to express solidarity by wearing flags (and) stickers and attending events. I know a couple of students who have attended every event we’ve organized in Laramie.”
The group has raised about $2,500 for Ukraine through rallies. Another $2,000 went to World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit helping feed Ukrainian refugees, thanks to a fundraiser that Devine Eats hosted with the help of owner Linda Devine, Pereverten, local politicians Trey Sherwood and Cathy Connolly and others.
One of Pereverten’s classmates far exceeded expectations for helping the cause when the man, a retired soldier, left school to travel to Ukraine and join the military in the country’s fight against Russia.
“I was not just shocked, I was out of words,” Pereverten said of learning of the man’s actions.
Pereverten spend hours talking and sharing information about Ukraine with the man, who she didn’t name out of concern for his safety.
From the United States, the greatest battle for Ukraine advocates is fighting misinformation about the nation.
“Ukraine is a very diverse country,” Gonzales-Willert said. “It’s very big, and the Ukrainians I know and spoke with all want a future close to Europe and the West, and not to Russia.”
He explained that many Americans see Ukraine through the lens of stereotypes and its relation to Russia as a former member of the Soviet Union. Ukraine broke from the Soviet Union as its own sovereign nation in 1991.
But the nation is much more than a Russian afterthought, Gonzales-Willert said.
Pereverten explained the Ukrainian language has significant linguistic differences from Russian, and that it’s a myth that so many Eastern Ukrainians speak Russian and wanted to be a part of the invading country.
She also noted that Ukraine still has internet access and is connected to the world financially, even during the war. Her relatives are experiencing some amount of normalcy as they are in the process of planting their home garden, and some restaurants in Kiev are beginning to operate again.
But the signs of war are unavoidable.
Pereverten’s family and friends in Kiev are still witnessing air sirens, bombing and shellings that kill civilians. In areas such as Mariupol that are taken by Russian forces, the situation is much worse.
“What’s going on in Mariupol is just genocide,” Pereverten said.
She continues to advocate for material action over words and sentiments as ways to help people in the country.
That Ukrainians have been putting up such a stalwart defense in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds sends a message to the world, Gonzales-Willert said.
“They will fight tooth and nail for every inch of land to protect their future and their children’s future to ensure a better future than they had,” she said
It’s a heartbreaking situation that’s generated a patriotic Ukrainian response inspiring to patriots of all nations.