Ukrainian students seeking new lives in Taiwan see parallels in Russia, China

·4-min read

When Ukrainian student Anna Fursyk first moved into her Taiwanese university dormitory, the roar of passing military jets made her flinch, reminding her of the war she had fled.

She is among the eight young Ukrainians who recently arrived in central Taichung city to study on full scholarships, drawn by Taiwan's democracy and a sense of kinship born of living under the constant threat of invasion from a much bigger, increasingly aggressive neighbour.

The planes that spooked Fursyk were from a nearby air base, which is scrambling jets more frequently to counter the growing number of incursions by Chinese warplanes into Taiwan's air defence identification zone.

"I was scared at first because I thought there was a war starting. I was affected mentally by the war in Ukraine," the 20-year-old said.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops into Ukraine, he gave form to the darkest fears of many Taiwanese -- that China will act on its pledge to annex the island, which it sees as a part of its territory to be seized one day, by force if necessary.

A top Chinese official recently warned that Beijing would "not hesitate to start a war" if the island declares independence.

Roman Koval, 28, a former flight attendant from Ukraine's eastern Lugansk region, said he decided to relocate to Taiwan partly because of what he called the "similar threats" it shared with his home country.

He called on Taiwan to learn from Ukraine's experience and to "be always ready and be always prepared".

"All the time Ukrainians were thinking... the US will come to save us, Europe will come to save us. But it turned out that no one is going to come to save us," he said.

"We are the ones who are going to protect ourselves and we are the ones who are fighting."

- 'Freedom and democracy' -

There has been an outpouring of public support for Ukraine in Taiwan.

A public fundraising drive collected nearly US$33 million in just four weeks, with President Tsai Ing-wen and other top officials each donating a month's salary to the cause.

The students' scholarships were made possible by a donation pledge of around US$1.38 million to the university.

Tsai has been keen to draw parallels between Taiwan's plight and Ukraine.

A picture she posted of Taiwanese orchids spray-painted in the colours of the Ukrainian flag went viral across social media, along with the accompanying message: "I hope that freedom and democracy can continue to blossom in both our countries."

Fursyk, who fled from the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, said she had chosen to move to Taiwan precisely because she wanted to live in a "democratic and free" environment while studying to become a Chinese teacher.

"The reason I didn't choose China to stay is because of communism, which would make my life less convenient," she told AFP in fluent Mandarin.

- 'Continue the fight' -

Her compatriot, 21-year-old Karyna Myshnova, said Ukraine needed attention and support from the world "to help us continue the fight".

"Just putting Ukrainian flags on your house, on your Instagram. Just showing you understand" would help, she said.

Alina Kuprii, 20, said she thought Taiwan had an advantage over Ukraine when it came to foreign intervention because of the former's semiconductor industry.

Taiwanese chip foundries churn out some of the world's most advanced chips, a component vital to the global tech industry.

"It would be really dangerous if China invaded Taiwan -- it would affect world trade for real, not like in Ukraine," she said.

"And I hope that China will not do that."

Kuprii, a Global MBA student, hopes she can eventually return home to start a career, using what she learns in Taiwan to promote business ties between the two.

But she said she is tormented by thoughts of her parents, who chose to stay in Ukraine because "they care too much about their home".

Kuprii's application to the university was processed as urgent because the city she is from -- Kryvyi Rig, the same as Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky -- has been shelled more heavily recently.

"I miss Ukraine so much, I am so homesick," she said. "I think people should appreciate any moment of life. Be grateful for every day."

All the students remained hopeful that Ukraine would triumph in the end.

"I think it'll take some time but I know we will definitely win," said Fursyk.

"We are defending our land, our independence, our freedom, and our decision not to be a part of Russia  -- as well as the principles of democracy."

aw/reb/qan

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting