Every morning for 17-year-old Svitlana from Donetsk starts roughly the same: she opens local websites with the hope of reading the cherished news there. But the news has not been encouraging for the past five months: her dream of entering the Kharkiv University is moves away further and further.
The girl has been unable to leave the temporarily occupied territory for five months. The self-proclaimed "DNR" authorities closed the checkpoints with reference to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I cannot calm down for several months, because I do not understand what the future holds for me", - Svitlana tells by phone from Donetsk. She asks not to declare her identity several times and not to publish contacts anywhere, as she is afraid for the safety of her parents.
Control points with the temporarily occupied territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts fell under the closure after the quarantine was announced. Thousands of children who were preparing for the external independent testing and admission to Ukrainian universities have lost this opportunity. Despite the fact that occupation authorities of the "LNR" opened the checkpoints and allowed people to leave for the controlled territory, "border" in the "DNR" remains closed.
Svitlana hopes that the checkpoints will be opened as soon as possible and she will be able to leave Donetsk.
"I was preparing for several months, I was working on the Ukrainian language, history, consulted with friends who had already entered under the simplified procedure, they told me what to pay attention to. I was already fully determined to leave, study and build a new future in a free Ukraine. But local "authorities" decided otherwise. Coronavirus untied their hands and allowed them to close the "borders", - Svitlana reasons. Her dream is to become an accountant, leave the occupation, see the world and take her parents away from the war.
"Locked down border"
The main explanation of the occupation authorities as to why they restrict the departure of people to the controlled territory is "difficult epidemiological situation with COVID-19 in Ukraine".
According to Svitlana, local media pay special attention to this topic and urge not to leave the territory of the "republic" in every possible way.
"To Russia – you are welcome, there are no restrictions. Although the number of patients with coronavirus there is several times greater than in Ukraine. I do not even tell that officially, there are much more infected with coronavirus in the uncontrolled part of Donetsk oblast than in the controlled part. So what pandemic can we talk about? This is all politics and the reluctance of local authorities to release young people", - she considers.
Representative of CADLO in the TCG Serhiy Harmash believes that the occupation authorities are thus trying to achieve subjectivization in the eyes of Ukraine. And the situation with coronavirus has nothing to do with it.
"Firstly, while they are closing the checkpoints, we have to contact them directly within the Minsk TCG. Secondly, they are segregating and separating "their people" from "not their". This way, they reinforce the trend of self-isolation from Ukraine, which is, in fact, integration towards Russia. Thirdly, they do not release young people to enter universities in the controlled territory of Ukraine, so that there is someone to study in their "universities". If there are no students in Donetsk and Luhansk, who will be study and teach there? Teachers will be left without work, the "republics" - without the youth. This is a socio-economic issue", - he told OstroV.
The Ukrainian side opened all checkpoints with the occupied territories and declared its readiness to let people through without any restrictions. Mandatory self-isolation has been canceled for applicants who leave CADLO in order to submit documents for admission to universities.
Occupation authorities of the "DNR" blocked the exit of people until the very end. Even having opened the only checkpoint Olenivka for departure on certain days, they established a strict requirement - the presence of registration (residence permit) on the territory of Ukraine controlled by the government.
Svitlana is not included in this category of people. Like most residents of CADLO, she has local registration in her passport, so she is now "restricted to travel abroad".
"At least they left some opportunity, but no. The checkpoint is opened only twice a week, people are let out of the "DNR" only with a residence permit in the controlled territory of Ukraine, and are let in back according to pre-compiled lists. You must submit documents to the "headquarters" and wait for an answer indefinitely to get on this list, you must submit documents in the "headquarters" and indefinitely wait for an answer. After all, they may not give the permission to enter, or will force you to undergo a mandatory two-week observation in hellish conditions. Therefore, there is a problem not only for leaving, but also for entering back", - Svitlana says.
The girl is a little perplexed when asked about the reasons for obtaining higher education in the controlled territory. According to her, acquaintances and friends (especially those who are pro-Russian) are looking for some kind of catch, inner meaning or benefit.
"Everything is quite simple - I want a clear future for myself and my family. I do not want to get a diploma that is recognized nowhere in the world. I do not want to get an education in an atmosphere of fear and instability. And I am not the only one, look how many children enter in Ukraine every year", - the girl responds emotionally.
According to official statistics, in 2019 alone, 1 865 children from the occupied territories entered Ukrainian universities under a simplified procedure (without passing an external independent testing). The number of applicants is growing from year to year.
According to Svitlana, the simplified admission procedure gives a good chance for children from the occupied territories to receive a Ukrainian education. But the main problem in preparation is knowledge of the Ukrainian language.
Svitlana learnt it watching free video lessons on the MES website, she also took online courses on the Prometheus resource. In addition, she watched films, programs and news in Ukrainian.
"We sometimes made special evenings with my parents at home when we spoke only Ukrainian. I and my mother wrote dictations. It is good that there is the Internet, where you can look for all the necessary information", - the girl recalls.
Svitlana still managed to catch studying of the Ukrainian language in the Donetsk school.
"I was in grade 7 the last time we were taught it at school, so something remained in my memory. I remember we read a lot of fairy tales and poems by Taras Shevchenko. Our teacher Ms. Iryna did it quite melodiously. When we recited them by heart, she did not scold when we stammered, but always smiled and prompted. Now she teaches general program in the lower school", - she says.
Teaching Ukrainian in schools of the occupied territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts has been almost completely stopped since 2016. There are rare electives left, but they are gradually disappearing.
The local occupation authorities said just a year ago that the school curriculum provides for the study of the Ukrainian language along with foreign ones. One or two hours a week are supposedly allocated to it.
But the local "parliament" in the self-proclaimed "DNR" removed the mention of Ukrainian as the second state language from the 10th article of the "Constitution" already in March 2020 and made appropriate changes to the "law" on education. Thus, it will completely disappear from the school curriculum in the new academic year.
"I do not know, maybe it depends on the school, but I had no electives in the study of the Ukrainian language. And I did not hear from my acquaintances from other schools that they had", - Svitlana says.
As for the education system as a whole, then, according to the girl, everything has changed after 2015 a lot. At first, they studied according to old (Ukrainian) textbooks and curricula, then Russian textbooks were suddenly brought in as "humanitarian aid". The entire curriculum has already begun to correspond to them.
"We had only Russian textbooks after 2015. Later, several local ones appeared on the history of Donbass, patriotic education and something else like that. As the teachers told us, the program should prepare us for entering local and Russian universities. When I asked a history teacher (we have a good and trusting relationship), what should I do if I want to enter Ukraine, she just shrugged her shoulders and said that there was nothing she could do to help", - she recalls.
A simplified system for children from the occupied territories (through educational centers) has been operating in Ukraine since 2016. However, it was somewhat limited (a certain number of universities, presence of special quotas only for Crimeans). This year, the Verkhovna Rada passed a law that expanded opportunities.
There are now separate admission quotas for children from CADLO and Crimea, and they can choose any higher educational institution in Ukraine. The size of the quota is determined by each university individually, but it should not exceed 20% of all state-financed openings.
"Each higher educational institution will have quotas, and applicants who come to study from the uncontrolled territories will compete within these quotas", - deputy from Servant of the People, chairman of the committee on education and science in the Verkhovna Rada Serhiy Babak emphasizes.
Thus, applicants from the occupied territories will not automatically be enrolled in a Ukrainian university or take away state-financed openings from young people, as is often heard from opponents of the law.
Svitlana recalls how painful it was for her to read messages on social networks about the negativity of some opinion leaders in relation to the new rules. She does not understand why it has become news to many that it is difficult to learn the Ukrainian language in Donetsk, to fully prepare for passing the EIT and compete with all Ukrainians on equal terms.
According to her, the first negative post she read was by Anatoliy Hrytsenko, leader of the Civil Position party. The girl subscribed to him and nearly always was in solidarity with his position on various issues. In his message, Anatoliy Hrytsenko criticized the law passed by the parliament. For some reason, he believes that children from the Donbass and Crimea will now study for free at the expense of state-financed openings that were taken from other Ukrainians. But, as we wrote above, the inflow occurs exclusively within the established quotas.
"I wanted to scream that this was not true. But I saw that most people support him in the comments under this post. Moreover, they wrote there that children would come and spy, carry Russian propaganda, commit terrorist acts and vote for some pro-Russian parties. In general, they will only carry negativity and devastation. But that is not true. And I wanted to shout about this. Why should I, who supposedly hate Ukraine, go there? I can go to a local university or go to Russia. It is not a problem. But I chose a different path. And believe me, those who go to Ukraine to study, they treat it well", - she says.
As for the simplified admission procedure, initially, the deadlines for submitting documents to the state-financed openings were determined until August 20, but later, the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine extended them by two months. However, not all applicants know this. In particular, Svitlana learned that the reception of documents for applicants from the temporarily occupied territory was extended until October 23 from the OstroV journalist.
"You are kidding", - the girl did not believe at first. Then she rejoiced for several minutes, through laughing and tears.
"This is not yet a solution to the problem, since it is unknown until when the checkpoints will be closed on our side. But this gives hope", - she admitted.
Deputy Minister of Education and Science of Ukraine Andriy Vitrenko notes that children from the occupied territories should give at least some signal that they want to study in Ukrainian universities. This can be done via e-mail, Viber, Telegram or Facebook.
"That is, they can use any electronic resource in order to give us a sign that they want to study here. In return, they will receive an official invitation and detailed instructions on what to do", - Vitrenko said.
Svitlana has already contacted one of the educational centers, where experts recorded her data and said that they were expecting her personally. But they immediately noted that the size of quotas for universities has not yet been determined (as of August 17, 2020), so they asked to choose several institutions which she wants to enter.
In addition to the simplified admission procedure, residents of the occupied territories are provided with other benefits (bursaries, free textbooks, etc.). At the same time, the issue of providing housing (dormitories) both during the admission campaign and training has not been resolved in any way. Applicants from CADLO and Crimea can count on a hostel on a general basis or within the framework of benefits established by a specific higher educational institution.
"One of the first questions that I am asked is where I will live. My family has saved up some money to rent a modest apartment. But someone does not have such an opportunity. And this scares the guys even to consider this option, I have heard this more than a few times", - Svitlana said.
It also became known at the end of July that the Ukrainian government is working on the development of a mechanism for online submission of documents for admission to educational institutions for children from the temporarily occupied territories. But at what stage the project is at this time is unknown.
Is there a future?
"I have several options now. The first is to wait for the "border" to open from the uncontrolled side, so I can leave and fully implement my plans. The second is to enter a local university, no comment here. The third is to wait another year and enter already in 2021. The given time I can devote to self-education. There is also a fourth option, which my parents persuade me to do - to go to the controlled Ukraine through Russia. But this is expensive, difficult and fraught with problems on the Ukrainian border. Besides, I am just scared", - Svitlana says.
In addition to the fact that traveling through the Russian Federation is expensive and difficult, it is also illegal. In this case, the order of entry/exit from the temporarily occupied territory is violated (article 204-2 of the Code of Ukraine on Administrative Offenses). This is fraught with a fine in the amount of $62 to $186. However, this option is popular. According to Svitlana, many social media groups are filled with travel announcements through Russia. Some of them even indicate that the fare includes a fine at the border.
"I do not like this. Starting a new life by breaking the law is wrong. Besides, I do not have extra money", - the girl says.
She is ready to wait. If she fails to enter this year, she does not deny the option of entering next year. If there is an opportunity to submit documents online, she is ready to use it.
"I am not yet in a critical situation. I have something to do. I help my parents at work as they always need some help. But I do not want to take root here, so if I do not succeed in entering this year, I will continue preparing for admission the whole next year and will help my parents", - Svitlana does not despair.
But not everyone is ready to wait. According to the girl, one of her good acquaintances, who was also going to leave and enter a Ukrainian university, changed his mind and submitted documents to a local university.
"Otherwise, he would have been drafted into the "DNR" army, so he was forced to do this and play it safe. He said that some boys would like to go to Ukraine, but are afraid of failure and end up in the local army. Guys of draft age are worried about rumors on a possible conscription, so they try to "enter at least somewhere", - the girl says.
It should be noted that there is no compulsory military service in the self-proclaimed republics. However, rumors that it will appear have been circulating for a long time. This topic has become especially acute this year. Local media regularly began to receive reports and stories that a military conscription could begin this fall.
Representative of CADLO in the TCG Serhiy Harmash admits that the call of youth for "conscript service" in the "DNR/LNR" armed gangs may be announced in the near future.
"Everything is moving towards this. Therefore, Ukraine must do everything possible so that young people leave the occupied territories and study in Ukrainian universities", - he said.
Svitlana says that she has not yet decided what to do. If the self-proclaimed authorities open the "border", she is ready to leave just about the next day and submit documents to a Ukrainian university.
"The main bag with things has already been packed", - she notes.
Vladyslav Bulatchik, OstroV
The content was created as part of the Thomson Reuters' COVID-19 Hub project to highlight the pandemic and its consequences in the Eastern Partnership countries with the support of the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office