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Ukrainian McCain Global Leader reflects on 1-year anniversary of Russian invasion

Mariia Levchenko participated in the ASU McCain Institute leadership program to enhance her peace-building skills

Group of four people posing for a photo, holding ID badges and smiling.

Mariia Levchenko (second from right) stands with fellow 2022 McCain Global Leaders during their Legacy Experience in Vietnam in December 2022. Photo courtesy Mariia Levchenko

February 27, 2023

She never imagined she would run from sirens. Not in her home country. She never imagined she would hear missile strike explosions or the terrible stories of what her friends endured with her own ears. Or the horrors of war with her own eyes. She never imagined she and her son would be forced to flee their home — with only a backpack with essential documents, because surely it would be safe to return in a few days. 

This was Kyiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 24, 2022, when Mariia Levchenko, along with thousands of other Ukrainians, woke up to an inconceivable reality: War had begun.

“I woke up early, like many of my other compatriots, from a phone call: There were Russian tanks in Mariupol,” Levchenko recalled. “At first, I didn’t understand what it was all about. But after a few minutes, I heard an explosion in the distance and realized everything was serious. Kyiv, at this time, was no longer sleeping. At 5 a.m., so many cars were on the streets as people hurried to leave the city. Even now, when I remember the first moments of the beginning of the war, I feel coldness on the skin.”

By trade, Levchenko is a peace-building officer at the Romanian Peace Institute (PATRIR) and the European director of outreach and training at the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding. In the past, she worked as a dialogue facilitation officer at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

When the reality of war began to set in, Levchenko decided to participate in the McCain Institute at Arizona State University’s McCain Global Leaders (MGL) program as a way to build upon her work. The 10-month fellowship allowed her to meet other character-driven leaders from around the world who embody Sen. John McCain’s legacy of serving causes greater than oneself. She even had the opportunity to help fellow Ukrainian refugees along the Poland-Ukraine border through World Central Kitchen as part of the MGL program, a cornerstone experience that she says gave her the strength to keep moving forward.

“I understood I was not alone on this journey to do something for society and the world. There are many other young leaders who are also struggling at times, but together, we create a balanced system of like-minded people who are burning with the desire to change the world for the better,” Levchenko said.

But before all that, back on that fateful February morning, Levchenko had to scramble to figure out what to do next — what to take with her, where to run, where the nearest bomb shelter was located.

Before the Russian invasion, Vladimir Putin’s hateful rhetoric was widely considered propaganda and extremism. And while most people in Ukraine expected military action to occur (specifically along the Russia-Ukraine border), not many anticipated a full-scale attack across the country’s entire region.

“Because, honestly, to believe that in the 21st century Europe, the whole horror of World War II can be repeated — filtration camps, rockets aimed at residential areas, flows of refugees at the borders, and chilling sounds of anti-missile defense on the streets of peaceful cities — was difficult,” Levchenko said.

She profoundly remembers the deafening silence among the vast flow of people trying to leave the capital. Metro stations were closed, and military vehicles created hourlong traffic jams, so people walked 3 to 5 kilometers carrying their belongings, small children and pets. Nobody spoke as they dragged their most valuable items, and an oppressive feeling of anxiety and fear hovered in the air. Everything was in slow motion amid the chaos.

Levchenko's priority was to get to her son, whom she had taken to a place in western Ukraine a day before the invasion before returning to Kyiv that same night. She thought, once there, she would return to Kyiv in a week max, but when she received word that a rocket hit a neighboring house, she understood then it would not be safe to go back. At least for now.

So she and her son crossed over into Moldova as Ukrainian refugees.

“I don’t want anyone ever to experience those feelings when you realize you can lose your home and are forced to leave your native land,” Levchenko said. “But once we made it out, first to Moldova, I was overwhelmed by the generosity and support from all the people we met on our way. Everyone was so kind that it broke our hearts even more. People were giving out the last things they owned to help the refugees running away from war.”

That support and kindness inspired Levchenko to continue striving for peace. Before the war, her work focused on how dialogues could create a space for conversations between people in Ukraine’s occupied and governmentally controlled territories. But then, with the start of the war, there was no space for dialogue.

“In the peace-building field, we believe foundations for peace should and must be laid, even during the war, because the whole social fabric of society is destroyed,” Levchenko explained. “Despite the war uniting people to fight against the common aggressor, it also creates divisions and fuels polarization among the Ukrainians: refugee, non-refugee, fighting at the frontlines or becoming an IDP.”

Therefore, she shifted her focus of work to essential skills, such as conflict resolution, social and emotional awareness, and trauma healing. For the past year, Levchenko has worked on the ground to understand the challenges and opportunities in local communities and how to raise Ukrainian voices so the world can continue to hear them.

“This civic activism stems from the Ukrainian decentralized political culture and our spirit and identity. This is what keeps me motivated to continue working in this field,” Levchenko said. “Keeping Ukraine at the forefront of the global community’s mind is a challenging task. Many countries feel the sanctions’ impact on Russia and their economies. There is a growing global divide, where some countries call for Ukraine to give up the territories and sit at the negotiation table. But for our country, that would mean total defeat and losing everything we have been fighting for: our independence and freedom.”

Despite having the generosity of strangers, her work and the MGL program to give her hope for the future, Levchenko knows the hardships Ukrainians still face. For they have now experienced firsthand what an “event of a global scale” is — something most of us don’t truly understand until we’ve been through something similar.

“Today is the time for actions, not words. I believe that Sen. McCain would feel the same,” Levchenko said. “Everyone is paying the price for the war that Russia started against Ukraine. The Russians, who continue to pretend that this will not affect them, will pay an exceptionally high price. That is why it is necessary to continue talking about the war and taking action to support the people on the ground.”

The Ukrainians are a strong and brave people who have unwaveringly stood up to the face of Russia’s authoritarianism, despite being outgunned, and have proven that united and with a strong will, democracy will triumph over Russia’s aggression. Levchenko hopes the world will continue to stand with Ukraine so she can one day return to rebuild her home.

“Because the war will destroy the society where there is a crack or a big division,” she said. “And it would unite humanity even more if there was love for the home country and the people. As iron is melted into steel in the fire, people are transformed into a nation in the struggle.”

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