2018 graduate, Ukraine native volunteers to support country's civilian reservists

woman standing next to brick wall in colorful, embroidered shirt
Iryna Bilan is pictured in a photo taken while she was a GVSU graduate student. Bilan lives in Ukraine and is volunteering to help the country's civilian reservists.
Image credit - courtesy photo

Iryna Bilan, a 2018 Grand Valley graduate, lives in Ukraine and now spends her days volunteering to support the Territorial Defense Forces, Ukraine's civilian reservists. 

Before the Russian invasion, Bilan went to work every day in an 18th century building in Kyiv that was renovated to serve as the country's flagship art and cultural center. She left Kyiv for Lviv two days after the bombings started. 

"Each train station was just filled with people who were carrying their cats and children. They were hiding from the bombing," she said. "The subway stations were transformed into shelters."

The first night of bombing, Bilan said she slept in the corridor of her apartment building, away from any windows.

Bilan is staying with her parents in Lviv. She said she constantly checks on the status of her colleagues who work at Mystetskyi Arsenal. After earning a master's degree in public administration, Bilan returned to Ukraine to work as the cultural center's grants and donor relations manager.

Lviv has become a hub for refugees. Bilan handles communications for the volunteer initiative and is sometimes called on to pack deliveries and organize logistics for transportation. "There is a high need for protective gear, elbow and knee pads, uniform pants and jackets, goggles, medical supplies and boots," she said.

three people standing near boxes
Bilan, center, and other volunteers are pictured in Lviv, Ukraine.
Image credit - courtesy photo
woman hunched over moving boxes, packing them
Dressed in a GVSU t-shirt, Iryna Bilan packs boxes of supplies. Bilan fled Kyiv for Lviv, where she is now staying with her parents.
Image credit - courtesy photo

Bilan said she likes to keep busy during the day, adding it helps to keep her from watching news coverage of the invasion. She still has friends in Kyiv and worries about them.

"I get lots of texts from my friends checking on me. It's difficult to multitask, sometimes. I'm arranging to pick up some supplies and I'll receive a text message and have to remember to answer it," she said. "I've never experienced such pressure. This pressure comes from the constant anticipation of bad news from other cities, and the people who still remain in Kyiv or other attacked cities."

People in Lviv are able to mostly continue their normal activities. The store shelves are about half full, Bilan said. Many of the city's residents are assisting with the volunteer effort or supporting people who were displaced from their homes.

President Philomena V. Mantella said Bilan’s story, as a member of the GVSU community, brings the tragedy we are witnessing on our screens that much closer to home.

“The university has been actively reaching out and offering support to members of our community we know are from Ukraine, including our alumni like Iryna,” said Mantella. “She is showing such character and bravery working for her country. Our thoughts and prayers are with her and all who are touched by this senseless violence and death. We want to link those who want to help with organizations providing humanitarian aid to make the most useful impact.”   

Bilan said she believes in the work she and others are doing to support the TDF and she believes in the Ukraine army.

"Their power is in their hearts," Bilan said.

International student raises donations to help Ukraine

Angelina Avramenko, a Grand Valley international student from Ukraine, has joined other Ukrainians who are living in the Midwest to support an online portal, Help Ukraine Together, which houses links to organizations that accept donations to help Ukrainians.

Avramenko, an honors college student, worked with staff members at the Padnos International Center to promote Help Ukraine Together.

Below is a list of other agencies that are helping with the humanitarian effort and seeking support:

International Committee of the Red Cross: UKRAINE CRISIS | International Committee of the Red Cross (icrc.org)

USA for UNHCR: URGENT: You Can Help Displaced Families | USA for UNHCR (unrefugees.org)

 Doctors without Borders: Ukraine | How to Help & FAQs | Doctors Without Borders


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