Emerson students organize fundraiser, vigil in support of Ukraine


Andriivs’kyi Descent, Kyiv. Photo by Karina Jha.

By Vivi Smilgius

The war in Ukraine wreaked havoc on families around the globe—including those of two Emerson students, who have taken the chance to do something about it.

Journalism major Natalie Vasileff, and writing, literature and publishing major Karina Jha have friends and family members in and around Ukraine—some safely evacuated and some still on the move. The two sophomores turned to activism to support their heritage, teaming up to organize a fundraiser and vigil in support of Ukraine.

The two started the Instagram account @emersonhelpukraine in hopes of helping Ukrainian citizens and refugees from afar. Since the creation of the account weeks ago, the two have organized a fundraiser and vigil to raise awareness and money.

Under the banner of the Instagram account @emersonhelpukraine, Vasileff and Jha will host a fundraiser in the Lion’s Den from 6 to 8 p.m. on April 21 and 22. All proceeds will be donated to Striving for All, a nonprofit organization currently aiding in the evacuation of Ukrainian orphanages. 

The vigil will include a candle-lighting, moment of silence, speech, and poetry reading, and will precede the fundraiser. While the vigil will provide a “memorial moment” for sadness or anxiety, the fundraiser aims to offset the somberness by celebrating Ukraine and supporting local Slavic businesses, performers, and artists.

Though the Emerson student body is small, Vasileff said, collective contributions “could amass a large amount of money.” The Sunflower Nights, as the fundraiser is titled, aims to educate students and give them a chance to help directly, despite being on the other side of the globe. 

“It would be a very wonderful feeling for the community to help a larger cause that is, to a lot of people, far away, but to some students here, a very close problem as well,” she said. “We’re taking this fundraiser and vigil as a resource for Emerson kids…to spread awareness in an actual, healthy way provided by Ukrainian and Slavic people that have direct experience with [the conflict].”

This emphasis on non-performative activism stems from Emerson’s handling of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, Jha said. She said she was unsettled by seeing graphic depictions of violence in Ukraine on televisions in the Lion’s Den after Russia’s invasion. For her, it felt like the college “forgot there are some Ukrainians [at Emerson] as well.”

When the invasion began, Jha said, she was mostly shocked, then in denial, before taking on an activist role. The situation still feels heavy and all-consuming for her, especially since she draws heavily from her Ukrainian heritage in her creative endeavors at Emerson. For Jha, there is “not really an easy way to escape” the constant stress.

“I fell behind in my classes because I was drawing evacuation routes,” Jha said. “It’s been scary to see, especially my mom and my grandparents kind of falling apart; to have the ground under me shaken in terms of what I build my creative life on.”

Vasileff echoed Jha’s experience with insensitivity and ignorance at Emerson. For her, spring break illuminated the difference between her experience and fellow students, as she watched classmates take tropical vacations while she spent the week worrying about the safety of her family overseas.

“To come home and be constantly on the phone, waiting for updates, not being able to sleep, not being able to eat, constantly making sure everyone would be okay, was so heartbreaking,” Vasileff said. “You’re supposed to be relaxed, but it’s just the worst week of your life.”

This sentiment led her and Jha to tap into Emerson’s population of student activists; the two also plan to connect with cultural clubs and support systems at nearby universities to create an “information hub” for students in the Boston area and beyond.

“Both of us have been affected and we wanted to do something to bring awareness, especially since Emerson kids have wanted to be so active,” Vasileff said. “We wanted to be able to provide actual resources and fundraisers…to bring Emerson community members together as a collective and help in a large scale way.”