© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

'It's hard to plan for even tomorrow:' Ukrainian student on living through a year of war

Anton Prima, a student at Ukrainian American Concordia University, is pictured with his mother.
Anton Prima
Anton Prima, a student at Ukrainian American Concordia University, is pictured with his mother Julia.

Feb. 24 marks the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. President Joe Biden visited Kyiv this week and pledged more American support for Ukraine as the war drags on.

A Wisconsin university, Concordia in Mequon, has a special connection to Ukraine. Its partner university, called Ukrainian-American Concordia University, is in Kyiv.

According to a news release, most of the school's faculty and students have fled Ukraine. But senior Anton Prima, 21, has stayed. He lives in Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, with his family and is earning bachelor's degrees at both UACU and the University of Physical Education and Sport of Ukraine.

WUWM spoke with Prima about his life and education experiences during the past year.

He remembers on Feb. 24, 2022, being woken up by his mother around 4 a.m. "She's telling me, 'Wake up, we're being attacked.'"

Not understanding what was going on, Prima says he went back to sleep. An hour later, his mother woke him up again. On the family's television, a headline read: "The war has started. Russia is here."

"We were all shocked. We didn't know what to do," Prima says. "Should we run, should we hide?"

Soon, they saw Russian helicopters flying overhead, and the sound of missiles attacking a nearby airport.

Prima's family sheltered in a neighbor's cellar during the bombings. After about four days, there was a short window of quiet, and they decided to flee Bucha.

"If we stayed there, we were afraid that we possibly could not survive," Prima says. "One of the neighbors notified us that the Kadyrovites from Chechnya [a Russian-aligned military force] were coming to Bucha. We were afraid because of their history — they're very threatening."

Prima and his mother, father, brother and dog drove to Lviv, where they lived for a while and volunteered with humanitarian groups. Soon, they moved temporarily to Kyiv.

Anton Prima speaks to WUWM's Emily Files over Zoom from his home in Bucha.
Anton Prima speaks to WUWM's Emily Files over Zoom from his home in Bucha.

"I had difficulty adjusting and going back to Bucha, because it was mentally taxing and frightening," Prima says. "After a traumatic experience, you don't want to go back there."

In March, while the Prima family was gone, Bucha was the site of a brutal massacre by Russian forces trying to gain access to Kyiv. Prima says he heard horror stories from his neighbors. He says one neighbor's mother died because they couldn't access medicine, and they had to bury her in their backyard.

In September, the Primas finally felt safe enough to move back to Bucha. Prima says their house suffered some damage from nearby bombings.

More than eight million Ukrainians have left the country during the war. But under martial law, Prima says men between the ages of 18 and 60 are prohibited from leaving in case they are needed to fight. So, his family has stayed and is still in Bucha today.

Prima has continued studying at UACU and the National University of Physical Education and Sport of Ukraine, earning two bachelor's degrees. He says classes have all moved online, and the universities have eased some of the workload for students because of the war.

"[Education] just helps you to forget a lot about the moments that you would think about all day long," Prima says. "It actually kind of lets you not think about the trauma you went through, 'cause you're thinking of other things.'"

Prima says life has gotten a bit more normal, or at least easier to cope with.

"Without my family, it would be so much difficult," Prima says. "We feel safe in our house at the moment."

Prima says it's hard to think about the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion approaching on Feb. 24.

"It just feels traumatic because a lot of lives have been lost. It's not a positive anniversary," Prima says. "I do want to thank the soldiers on the front lines. They're giving me an opportunity to study, receive education and feel safe."

Prima says Biden's visit this week to Ukraine gave him "a glimmer of hope."

"I was glad to hear about the support the U.S. will provide, and I guess just being with us 'til then end," says Prima.

Prima is considering going to school for a master's degree after he finishes his bachelor's this spring. He thinks he might want to be a physical education teacher and swim coach. But, he tries not to plan too much for the future.

"The lesson I've learned is it's hard to plan for even tomorrow. I'm living in the present as much as possible."

Have a question about education you'd like WUWM's Emily Files to dig into? Submit it below.


Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.
Related Content