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Together with his mother and sisters, Gleb fled the war in Ukraine by car

Gleb Kupriianov from Ukraine had always wanted to study in a Western European country. But he had never wanted to end up at Avans because of the war with Russia. The first-year student of International Business in Den Bosch fled his home country with his mother and sisters, crossing the European continent by car. They ended up in the Netherlands.

Gleb clearly remembers the moment the first rockets came down right next to the house he shared with his family in Ukraine. It was just after 6 in the morning when the student heard a ‘whoosh’. He had no idea what it was. “That sound was very loud. I thought: what is going on? When I looked out the window, I knew the Russian invasion had begun.”

The Avans student had known for some time about the threatening situation involving neighbouring country Russia. The family had gone out of Kharkiv even before the war started, as they heard that war could begin on 16th February. Then on 20th they came back to Kharkiv thinking anything won’t happen. But when the Russians invaded, they had to leave Kharkiv again. On 24 February 2022, then 15-year-old Gleb, his mother, two sisters from 13 and 8, and their dog, got in their car to flee their home country. His father did not join them, as he was working in Israel at the time. “Fleeing Ukraine was scary, because I was not sure if I will be able to visit the country again. But I mainly tried to control my thoughts. My mother, who is a psychologist, was a great help. Thanks to her I stayed calm and did not become depressed”, says Gleb.

Better circumstances
Friends and acquaintances spoke highly of the Netherlands. Other Ukrainians had gone there, and they also heard good things about Dutch hospitality and the quality of education. So the Netherlands would most likely be their final destination. “I had been wanting to study in a Western European country for quite some time. But I had not anticipated achieving this dream in the way it happened. I would rather have done this under better circumstances.”

While they were sure what their final destination would be, they did not yet know how they would get there. Gleb was in charge of navigation when they left the country, while keeping his family up to date about their travels and keeping track of messages informing them of dangerous areas to avoid in Ukraine. In the end, they travelled through six countries in total: Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands. They spent approximately a week in each country, to keep their options open and see if they wanted to stay there longer. The trip took a total of six weeks. “I took on the role of dad in the car, and had lots of responsibilities. I took care of my sisters while my mother drove.”

Fun road trip
The Ukrainian student does not speak about their travels in a depressive tone. Of course it was sad, considering the circumstances, but Gleb says that he, his mother, and his two sisters attempted to make the best of it and see it as a road trip. That involves good times too, “such as my sister’s birthday, which we celebrated in the car just the next day after the beginning of war. That was weird, but fun too. We sang for her and got her gifts. I will not forget that moment”, he says. He also recounts the talks he had on the road with his mother. “About the psychology of warfare, and Putin’s reasons for attacking Ukraine. My sisters were busy doing their own thing, but I also talked to them. It was actually rather fun.”

Spending many hours sitting in the car was less fun, but their absolute low point was when they heard that their uncle had died in the war. But when the four arrived in Moldova after a long drive, and found a piano at the place they would be spending the night, the Avans student was able to smile again. “When I play the piano, I can clear my head. Like meditation”, he says, with a smile on his face. During their travels, he also got to know new and kind people and cultures, and people in Romania taught him how to shoot a bow and arrow. He also saw beautiful scenery everywhere they went. He especially loved the snowy mountaintops in Austria. “Those were amazing.”

Gleb is convinced that when something bad happens to good people, such as having to flee war, the universe will take care to create balance. “I did not let the bad outweigh the good during the trip”, he remembers.

Gleb has been living in Hilvarenbeek for a few months and before that he spent some time in Utrecht and Zwolle. His mother and sisters have by now returned to a safe part of Ukraine. He misses them, but he talks to them on the phone every day. He feels that people here are open, that public transport is very convenient to use, and that the architecture is beautiful. He would like to finish his International Business study programme and could see himself staying in the Netherlands for some time after. He only wants to return to his home country in the future if it is safe. “But I’d rather travel by plane then, no more road trips for me”, he jokes.

This article appeared in Dutch in Punt magazine ‘Grenzeloos’ (boundless). You can pick up the magazine for free at the various Avans locations.

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