Graduate student keeps watchful eye on Russo-Ukrainian conflict

A GVSU graduate student wants to thank an aid organization made up of volunteers that helped her youngest brother and father in Ukraine survive 40 days of Russian occupation. 

Nataliia Kniffin, who is studying criminal justice, said the work of Freedom to Ukraine, an aid organization founded soon after Russia invaded her native country, was instrumental in the survival of her family members.

“My hope is to share this story with the Grand Valley community,” said Kniffin. “These organizations depend on support. I’m very thankful for that organization to be able to support and help with food and rescue my father and brother.”

Kniffin’s thoughts are constantly attuned to the well-being of her elderly father, Vladimir, and youngest brother, Yurij. 

Since the Russian invasion began in late February, she said she can barely get a phone connection with the pair, who live outside Kyiv in the town of Gostomel. Like its neighbor Bucha, Gostomel saw fierce fighting in the early days of the conflict. 

Members of Nataliia Kniffin's family pose for a photo in Ukraine
The family of graduate student Nataliia Kniffin pose for a photo in Ukraine. Kniffin's older brother, Ruslan, left; younger brother, Yurij, center-left; and her father, Vladimir, center-right, live in Gostomel, which saw fierce fighting.
Image Credit: Courtesy

Kniffin said her father’s home overlooks Antonov Airport, a key target by the Russians on the invasion’s first day. 

“The phone connections are very bad,” said Kniffin. “Russians bombed the tower, so connection with cellular was so bad. We could only talk for 90 seconds at a time. 

“We lost connections for a whole week at one point. It’s difficult to know that the bridges to their village were destroyed, so there’s no chance to get there.”

Her father and brother sought refuge in their basement of their neighbor’s home for 40 days, said Kniffin, while Russian artillery and bombs fell around them.

“That was the most painful for me to know that my brother and father had to stay in that cellar with no gas,” said Kniffin. “It was bad. Russians were in every house, every yard.”

Even with Russians occupying the city, one of her older brother’s close friends, Aleksey, who is a volunteer with Freedom to Ukraine, was able to sneak into Gostomel and bring food to her younger brother and father in the cellar. 

As the Ukrainian army pushed back Russian forces from Gostomel, Yurij and her father could finally evacuate their neighbor’s basement. Kniffin said Yurij was recently released from a hospital for treatment of acute stress with Freedom to Ukraine paying for his treatment.

She said she is very grateful for the help of Freedom to Ukraine’s volunteers and the international support. 

“I really appreciate the help the U.S. government is providing for Ukraine with their support and humanitarian aid,” said Kniffin. “I just want to see peace and resolution of the conflict. I don’t want to see people suffer. I want to help them as much as I can.”