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Illia and Natella have joined the UM community through the Scholars at Risk program.

Pursuing mediation in a time of war

Ukrainian scholars find refuge at UM through the Scholars at Risk program

July 5, 2022 — 

When Natella Roskoshna began her career path in law 12 years ago, she had little idea how much conflict would shape her life. An undergraduate student at Donetsk National University in Ukraine, she completed her bachelor’s degree in 2014, with hopes of continuing her studies in law.

But shortly before she graduated, Russian military invaded the Crimean Peninsula, igniting the Russo-Ukrainian war. The military conflict in Donetsk forced Roskoshna to put her plan to continue her studies on hold, as she stayed at home for her safety. The following year, Roskoshna was able to move to Kharkiv to pursue her master’s in law.

While attending Karazin Kharkiv National University, she met Illia Roskoshnyi, a fellow law student who shared her values and desire to use their legal education to create positive change in the world. Drawn to ideas of restorative justice and the importance of mediation in resolving conflict, the couple began a relationship and were married the following year.

In addition to their scholarly work, the couple started a business together – a coffee shop named Philosopher – choosing the name as a place for “thinking and coffee”, while conducting research for a private research institution on constitutional rights, consumer rights, and discrimination.

The pair graduated in 2021 and defended their dissertations in December. Roskoshna’s focused on mediation in the concept of restorative justice, while Roskoshnyi’s discussed the constitutional and legal principles of human-state interaction in the information society. After graduation, they planned to begin developing a program for the university and start teaching the next session. But then, as before, an inescapable conflict once again forced them to reevaluate their future.

As Russian military began a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in March, like many Ukrainians, the couple’s lives were irreversibly shaken as a conflict that neither of them could have predicted was suddenly on their doorsteps.

“The first two weeks, we were in shock,” says Roskoshna. “We didn’t know what would happen. We were scared and we stayed in our home and tried to understand what we could do for our future. Could we survive or not?”

Despite warning signs in February that an invasion from Russia was potentially imminent, Roskoshna says very few Ukrainians could wrap their heads around the idea that this could happen to their country, even after the invasion began. She says it took some time to adjust to the new horrifying reality that their once happy home was now in a war zone.

“We just refused to believe that it was reality,” says Roskoshna.  “We didn’t believe it. We thought in maybe three days it would end, but it didn’t, and we were just stuck in this situation. After a while, we began searching for different opportunities so that we could continue our lives.”

While searching for alternate arrangements online, the couple tried to remain focused on continuing their work, even as their physical environment became increasingly unsafe.

“We were stuck for two months, just shocked, and trying to do our business at home and not pay attention,” says Roskoshna. “When the rockets would hit, we would go to the corridor, the safest place in the apartment, because it had no windows. It protected us from the glass shattering.”

In their tense search for safe lodging to continue their work and their lives, the couple came across the University of Manitoba’s Scholars at Risk program, and immediately reached out to see whether they qualified to come to Winnipeg. They said they were encouraged by the way the university supports Ukraine and felt immense relief to be welcomed with open arms by UM’s president, the dean of the Faculty of Law, and the university governance committee.

“We just wrote directly to the university, because we saw that they support Ukraine,” says Roskoshnyi. “We needed help and we wanted to continue our work and our research, and we asked the university, and they helped us, they supported us, they gave us a lot of things that we needed.”

While the dangerous journey to leave Ukraine was arduous and filled with uncertainty, Roskoshna says that the transition to living and working in Canada was a pleasant one.

“People here are super friendly, very open, very supportive and this process of adaptation was very good,” says Roskoshna. “It wasn’t stressful for us. I think we are very lucky to have this opportunity from the university, from Michael Benarroch and all the governance at the university. The way to Canada was difficult for us, but this was not.”

“We are happy to be here,” adds Roskoshnyi.

On May 26, the couple arrived safely in Canada and set about creating a new home for themselves, even as their own on the other side of the world continues to be torn apart by conflict and war. While they say they are doing their best to focus on their work, research and acclimatize to their new surroundings, the safety of many of their friends and relatives who remain in Ukraine still occupy their thoughts.

“We are staying here now, and we have some communication with our relatives, and we don’t know whether we will have connection with them tomorrow or not,” says Roskoshnyi.

“Every time [we hear] it is louder, more dangerous,” adds Roskoshna. “and now with the situation even if they want to, they can’t leave this territory because it’s very dangerous.”

Roskoshna says her experience witnessing the war unfold in her country has emphasized the necessity of mediation in resolving conflict and the importance of working to achieve justice that is truly restorative.

“I like everything about mediation because people can reach an agreement almost in any situation, except the situation like this, in Ukraine. The good thing about mediation is that mediation recognizes that we are all different and we have different needs and different emotions, so we must be treated in different ways. It’s about meeting with real people and asking about their real needs.”

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