A Ukrainian academic who helped rebuild her university at the beginning of the crisis with Russia in 2014 is to give a public lecture in University College Cork (UCC) next week.
Dr Larysa Samosonok and her daughter Victoria, 19, are sheltering in Cork after an arduous journey to the Polish border following the Russian invasion of their country.
A former vice-rector of Donetsk National University of Economics in the Donbas region of Ukraine, Dr Samosonok is to deliver the first lecture in a series by the UCC Centre for Adult Continuing Education (ACE).
In 2014, Dr Samosonok was one of three administrators tasked with moving her university to territory under the control of the Ukrainian government after the war began in the Donbas region.
“It was not sudden, and Russia had been preparing for quite a long time for it. It was one of the stages of Putin’s plan to deprive Ukraine of independence," Dr Samosonok said.
Half of her university’s facility left Donetsk for their summer vacation, believing they would return to a liberated city in September. “A lot of people never went back.”
Dr Samosonok was one of those who left everything behind them in 2014 and never returned home.
“I realised I cannot live with people who are against my country. I cannot work with them, I cannot speak with them, I cannot be near them.”
In September it became clear that the city of Donetsk would not be liberated. The Ukrainian Ministry of Education decided not to resume university operations in the occupied territory.
Dr Samosonok and two of her colleagues were tasked with transferring the university to the nearby city of Kryvyi Rih.
“I remember how we went to our Minister of Education and he asked us ‘OK girls, will you do that?’,” she laughed.
“And the three of us said ‘yes, we will’. It was very difficult because we did not have access to anything; documents, cloud storage, even to the contacts for staff and students.
"We had zero, and we had to build the university. We had only a team of 10 people and our laptops, and that was all.
"It was necessary to create the university in 17 days because the Minister gave us only 17 days."
"The country was not ready to manage the situation, nobody was prepared for war.
"We met a lot of people who helped us because they understood we lost everything and that we must continue to live and do our job.
"But of course, we also met a lot of opponents who considered us guilty of what was happening, and many unprofessional and indifferent officials who thought the events were too far away from them and didn’t concern them.”
“We worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week for almost three years because we had to build a new university.
"Not everyone could stand such a regime but we managed to create a university.”
Re-establishing the university was like a rollercoaster, she added. Sometimes the team would hear things from officials like ‘you have that document in Donetsk, you just need to bring it to us’.
“I would tell them ‘OK if I had a tank, I would go to Donetsk and get those documents but I haven’t a tank, I haven’t a bomb or a gun so I don’t have those documents so please help me’.”
In 2017, she joined Vzayemodiya — Plus, an NGO that works with micro, small, and medium enterprises in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Dr Séamus Ó Tuama, director of ACE, said it is fitting that Dr Larysa Samosonok should deliver the first lecture in the series, which is in honour of former director Seán Ó Murchú as part of its 75th anniversary.
"She, like Seán Ó Murchú himself, has dedicated her life to creating better futures for other people," Dr Ó Tuama said.
"They both share that zeal to make the world a better place for everyone and especially for those who have their opportunities limited by circumstances beyond their control."
Lectures are open to the public and will take place in UCC’s new Student Hub building from 7 to 9 pm on the relevant dates. Dr Samosonok will speak on Wednesday, March 30.