Photo Courtesy of Gabriella Grabovska

Gabriella shares stories of Ukrainian culture, first-hand experiences of the Russian invasions and a message to the student body to not forget what happened


I’m Gabriella Grabovska and I use she/her pronouns. I’m majoring in Government and International Politics with a concentration in political behavior and identity politics, and a minor in Political Communication. 

It’s a crazy long name, but I’m focusing on American elections through my studies. I’m an international student from Ukraine. 

A fun fact is that I know four languages and I’ve been to 30 countries.

What is your personal relation to Ukraine?

I was born [in] Kyiv, Ukraine and I lived there for 17 years of my life before I moved to the US right before [my] classes at Mason started [in] August 2022.

Now, even though I’m in the US, my entire family lives in Ukraine [like] my parents, my grandparents [and] other relatives. I’ve traveled to Ukraine over winter break and I try to visit my family after every semester.

What experiences have you had in Ukraine since the 2022 invasion from Russia?

Not many people know, but Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014. That’s when it took over Crimea, and some parts of eastern Ukraine. Even though I was a child [at] nine years old, it was still terrifying, especially when it started with revolution. [It] was five minutes from where I lived.

Since the invasion in 2022, I’ve been really close to death. In the first three weeks of the full invasion, we got stuck in a small town in [the] Kyiv region. We didn’t have electricity, food, heat [or] water. It was also February and March, so it was really cold. We didn’t have any wi-fi connection. We couldn’t call our family to tell them that, “Hey, we’re alive.” We didn’t know what was happening in the news [with] no electricity [and] no TV.

It was terrifying, because we would just talk about “the plan”.

“Oh, what if Russians come into our house? What are we going to do?”

I had a plan of hiding between the mattress and the bed. We would hear explosions every couple minutes. We would wake up because there [was] a helicopter right outside of our window. 

Once, my dad and I decided to walk to a different town… to get some connection. While walking, we heard some really loud noises, and those were helicopters and fighter jets. We had to fall on the ground, and I was wearing some really bright clothes [a red jacket]. 

We had to cover ourselves with soil and snow… That was terrifying, when you’re just staring at the ground, it’s freezing, but Russians are close to you… It was terrifying to see how little children in the same town get one potato for their birthday instead of a birthday cake. And pregnant women not having access to medicine, or anything that they needed. 

We had to bury some of our food and jewelry in the ground because we knew that Russians could come in and kill us. If they didn’t kill us, they would have just robbed us. 

And then I remember making the explosive cocktails. Just in case we see a tank right in front of our house, we can open the window and throw those…

We were the first family to decide to leave the town, because it was getting worse and worse every day. We knew that the tanks were coming closer. I remember sitting with a group of people from the same town [and] planning where to go. We were looking at old Soviet maps, because online maps were unavailable…

We made the decision to finally drive away from that place. We would have dreams about driving through the woods, and then all of the sudden seeing a Russian tank and dying [in the dream]. That was something real [for Ukrainians].

For some people it’s like… a movie. But this is something that we had to deal with every day. I remember my mom was crying all the time… and my dad had to be very strong and not show any emotion. 

Sometimes, I remember before the full invasion we had so many plans. I remember just, “Oh, I don’t want to go do homework, or, I don’t want to go there. I don’t want to do this. I’m so tired.” But when you’re that close to death, you realize, “Oh, I wish I just had homework now. I wish I could open my phone and just scroll through Instagram.” 

But we didn’t have that, and it was terrifying. We were the first family to risk it all and… drive away from the town. 

Everybody would cut their bedsheets and put them as white flags on our car. I would also make signs [that said] “children” and stick them into different parts of the car. I would put it in Russian… so if Russian soldiers see it… they hopefully wouldn’t shoot.

But when we got to the Ukrainian checkpoint our soldiers asked, “So, why the hell did you put the white flags and ‘children’ signs on your car?” We were like, “Oh, just in case Russians see us so they don’t blow up our car.”

And [the] Ukrainian soldier said, “You did the worst thing you could have. Because, when Russians see the white flags, and when they see that there are children in the car, they blow up those cars first…”

And then we drove to western Ukraine, not knowing where we’re going [and] calling different people that we may know. [Eventually] one of our friends said, “Yeah, please come over. Stay here for as long as you need.” So for the next couple of months, we lived in western Ukraine with one of our family friends.

We moved back to Kyiv when we realized that it was safer after Russian ground troops left the Kyiv region.

How was your experience at the recent Ukraine protest in Washington, D.C. which marked two years since the 2022 invasion?

Photo Courtesy of Gabriella Grabovska

On Feb. 24 2024, there was a traditional rally in DC that I attended, as well as [a rally] last year, where people from all around the US came to support Ukraine and remind the world that the war is still happening [and] people are dying every single second…

And it was big… It was very inspirational because we had people that were from Ukraine and we had some government officials, even members of congress. 

Jamie Raskin, representative from Maryland, was there and I had an opportunity to say thanks to him for supporting Ukraine and talk to him… as well as our Ambassador Oksana Markarova who does a lot for Ukraine as well. 

Just seeing people there [who could] understand what you’re going through was very important.

A couple friends of mine from Mason joined me in the rally. I even taught them the traditional Ukrainian phrase…

We say “Glory to Ukraine,” so Слава Україні. And then, the other person has to respond “Glory to our heroes,” Героям Слава.

Right now, do you feel like current media coverage and general attention to Ukraine right now is sufficient?

No. Most moved on and forgot about Ukraine.

I understand that [there is] the psychological aspect of our minds. We just get used to everything. But how can you get used to horrors like that? How can you get used to the children dying and being r—d, and cities being attacked on a day-to-day basis?

The number of times that I got asked by other people, “Oh, is the war still going?” is just ridiculous. I understand [that] some people don’t care. But the basic knowledge about the war existed back in 2022 because the media talked about it. 

… Unfortunately people have moved on and [the] media does not cover enough of it. Why doesn’t the media cover enough of Ukraine? [It is] because they see that the number of times that the article was read is now really, really low. The tendency of our people [to be] obsessed with breaking news is just not right…

People who are in Ukraine are constantly exposed to all the explosions and all the horrors of the war… [It is a] problem that the conflict has been long term, because our soldiers [and] the brave people of Ukraine started losing faith…

They get used to the war, and they’re tired. They are really tired. If you fight every single day while Congress takes months to pass a couple billion dollars [in aid], you [will] just feel like giving up. Especially when you lose your closest people…

Why did you choose Mason?

Back when I was in Ukraine, I started researching a lot of colleges all around the world. I had different options of where to go [like] the UK, the Netherlands [and] even Singapore. 

I decided to go to Mason because I was interested in the American legal system and politics. George Mason was one of my top choices because I loved the program… The Schar School of Policy and Government offers a ton of opportunities and those are amazing…  You can make connections with professors who work in the field and do incredible things in the DC area.

Currently, I’m interning in Congress [with the] US House of Representatives committee on House administration, Minority. I could never do that if I went to college somewhere else in the country because [of] the commute.

I loved how big Mason community was… I am a very extroverted person, so I wanted to meet more people and engage in the community.

How have your experiences been at Mason?

My experiences at Mason when I came here were really awesome, especially at the beginning. Being Ukrainian is a huge part of my identity and a lot of people knew of it. So, sometimes instead of [hearing] “Hi Gabriella”, people would go “Слава Україні” [Glory to Ukraine].

The Schar School wrote an article about me and it went really viral back in fall 2022. I got very involved on campus in different departments, including the Schar School, Department of Psychology and other places. So people knew of me.

I even got a nickname from one of my friends, “Mr. Kyiv”. I don’t know why “Mr.” but Kyiv was the city that I’m from. Everybody has been very supportive of me.

It has definitely been hard. Again, as I said, people don’t know what I’m going through. So they can just say, “Oh, I’m sorry this happened,” but they will never feel the same way I feel. 

But, I feel like I have contributed to awareness on [Ukraine]. I talked to a lot of students about the war [and] have advocated for the issues that matter to me personally.

Can you tell us about a recent experience you had with Mason Dining?

It was just a regular day, and I walked into Southside to get lunch. And, the first thing that I saw was a Russian flag in the middle of the dining hall at one of the stations. My first [reaction] was confusion. I [spoke] to Mason Dining representatives and I told them in my opinion how inappropriate in my opinion their actions were, and they took the Russian flag down…

The main reason why this situation was so inappropriate and offensive is the world community came to a consensus that Russia will not use their flags in, for example the Olympics. Russian professional athletes who have spent their lives to be successful are not allowed to use the Russian flag at the Olympics or championships in sports. Why does George Mason put up a Russian flag while the world community does not?

I support diversity and all students that we have on campus. It’s not even a question. 

However, the Russian flag is a symbol of the Russian government. It’s a symbol of the invasion. If we support diversity, and if we support different communities, how can we put up a symbol of the country that violates international law that commits war crimes, kills civilians, r—s children and destroys cities?

I believe I was not the first person who saw the flag, and I am definitely not the only one who was offended by that because different students and I reached out to dining representatives…

I was the one to take action and ask people to take it down, even though other people saw it. You don’t have to be Ukrainian to fight for respect and fight against Russia. People from all around the world showed that when they came to our Ukraine and they started fighting for our side.

Would you like to tell us about Ukrainian culture?

The biggest part of Ukrainian culture is [the] people… Before the full invasion [they] used to be a really smiley, open and always ready to help. Even if they don’t know English and you’re a tourist, [if] you come up to them… they will spend 20 minutes figuring out where your destination is [and] try to explain in any language they can come up with. They sometimes [would] even walk you to the right spot. That’s something that I really appreciated.

We have some really good food. My mom makes these fried squash thingies… my mom cooks so well. When I was a child, I took it for granted, like, “Oh, my mom just like made dinner or something.” Now if I make something, it takes me three hours, one more hour of cleaning it up, and then you just eat it in five minutes and you’re like, ‘What just happened? I wasted so much time.’ So, I started appreciating people who can cook.

I also went to DC to a Ukrainian restaurant called Ruta, it was pretty good. It [reminded me] of how it used to be back in Ukraine…

Do you have a message you would like to share to the student body?

Definitely start caring. Even though it feels like it’s really far, it impacts your life. It impacts what your government focuses on. It impacts the people who are around you… The world is big, but at the same time it’s not. So, if you see something that you feel like is wrong, don’t just walk by. Don’t feel like there’s someone else to take care of it. 

It’s not only about Ukraine. If you feel like Mason does not properly represent you, go ahead and give your feedback and take some action. Because the more we commit to silence, the more we become slaves of the situation. 

Make a habit of donating money, again not necessarily to Ukraine. If you have an issue, for example like child cancer… donate a couple of dollars every week. 

Now, if we’re talking about Ukraine, a couple of dollars is nothing for a US citizen. This cup of lemonade that I just got was [about] $3.50, but $2 can be a full meal in Ukraine… It will definitely make change and I will share resources where people can donate.

[Grabovska recommends that people donate to U24, Serhiy Prytula Charity Foundation and Razom for Ukraine.]