When Nicholas Bennett graduated from Woodgrove High School in 2017, he wanted an international college experience.
When he enrolled at a historic university in Krakow, Poland, to study international relations, Bennett didn’t know he’d have a front-row seat to the transformative geopolitical events of 2022. As Bennett prepares to graduate from Jagiellonian University this summer, he’s witnessed the Ukrainian refugee crisis firsthand, both in Poland and on a reporting trip to Western Ukraine in March.
”I don’t think anyone studying international relations could resist the opportunity to see history being created,” Bennett said.
The Russia’s war on Ukraine is hitting home in more ways than one for the Bennett family of Lovettsville. Nicholas Bennett’s mother Vika is an ethnic Ukrainian who grew up in the former Soviet Union before emigrating to the U.S. in the early ’90s. She still has friends in the region, and the past few months have been filled with tension and worry leading up to the usually joyful Orthodox Easter season in April.
When Nicholas Bennett left Loudoun to study in Krakow, his goal was to travel. And despite COVID disruptions, he’s been able to make his way around much of Europe over the past four years.
“For me, it was mostly about the ability to travel and interact with people around Europe,” he said. “I’ve seen Krakow undergo two major transformations since I first arrived. At first, it was a party city for students–then COVID came and everything locked became kind of bleak. Then everything started to come back, and the war began. … There’s an uneasiness in the air.”
Krakow, formerly known for its nightlife and international student scene, is now full of Ukrainian refugees. The United Nations refugee agency estimates that 3 million Ukrainian refugees are now in Poland. Bennett’s college roommate is from the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, which experienced heavy fighting in the early days of the war, and Bennett said that although his friend puts up a brave front, it’s a challenge trying to finish college with a war at home.
Bennett has also traveled to global hot spots as an assistant to the freelance photojournalist David Saveliev. Bennett traveled to Białystok, Poland, with Saveliev in late 2021 to cover the immigration crisis at the Poland/Belarus border. In March, he joined Saveliev and reporting partner Jesse Kiryev in covering the influx of refugees into the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. The team’s article about Ukrainian Jews sheltering in a historic Lviv synagogue was published last month in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
For Bennett, a week in Lviv in mid-March as the city experienced its first Russian missile strikes was intense and unforgettable, with the sound of air raid sirens filling the air. But one thing that struck Bennett was the way life went on.
“Everyone’s walking their dogs and mothers with their strollers. They’re not hiding. They just continue on with life,” Bennett said.
“Obviously, there’s an element of fear,” he added, but he had to follow up on the opportunity to witness history. “I never expected to be interviewing refugees in a synagogue in Western Ukraine. … It’s irreplaceable to see these things on the ground in a real way.”
For Bennett, who grew up in Loudoun with his Russian-speaking grandparents, the ties to his mother’s cultural heritage also hit home. The young journalists rode the bus back to Krakow with a group of Ukrainian refugees traveling to Poland.
“The woman next to us looked like an identical copy of my grandmother. … At that moment, all the emotional connection surfaced,” Bennett said.
At home near Lovettsville, Bennett’s parents David and Vika Bennett have placed sunflowers and Ukrainian flags at the gate to their bucolic western Loudoun home.
Vika Bennett grew up in the Soviet Union in what is now Kazakhstan, the daughter of ethic Ukrainian parents. She studied engineering in Moscow for eight years before moving to the U.S. in the early ’90s. Vika met David, a Maryland native, at St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral in DC. The couple were living on Capitol Hill when Nicholas and his younger brother Andrew, now an engineering student at Virginia Tech, were born, and the family moved to Loudoun in 2001.
David Bennett grew up in Bethesda and Potomac, MD, but his father’s family has roots in Lovettsville. Bennett’s German American ancestors came through Lovettsville in the 1740s before settling in the midwest. “It’s sort of like we returned ‘home’ after 250 years,” David Bennett said. Vika and David are well-known in the community as the organizers of Lovettsville’s beloved annual German Christmas market before the pandemic.
Vika keeps in touch with several college friends from Ukraine. She said one close friend left the country after fighting began in Eastern Ukraine in 2014. But her friend’s daughter recently relocated to Germany while her husband continues working at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station in southern Ukraine seized by Russian forces in March.
As Vika Bennett messages friends every morning, the war hits home on a daily basis.
“If any nationality had been bombed and treated the way [Ukraine] has been, my heart would break. But when it’s so close to home and you have friends whose kids were living underground in a garage for two weeks in a car, that’s very personal. My heart is definitely going to Ukraine.”
Nicholas Bennett applied to several prestigious graduate programs in the U.S. and Europe for the next academic year, but said part of him feels a pull to stay in Krakow. While he finishes his dissertation, Bennett is working to improve his Russian language skills and is planning another reporting trip with Saveliev to Ukraine this summer. The journalists are also considering a trip to the former Soviet republic of Moldova south of Ukraine where attacks last week raised alarms about the conflict spreading across the border.
“Most people, when a war comes, they don’t want to stay around,” Bennett said. “But for me, it’s making me want to stay and go towards it in a way.”