Thursday, December 1, 2022

‘A Burning Desire’ to Be in Ukraine: Ashland Native and Ukrainian Catholic University Professor Talks about Realities, Awareness and Hope

It has been nine weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine.

Once dominating the round-the-clock news cycle, the atrocities suffered by the Ukrainian people have begun to take a backseat to pop culture and politics across news channels.

Still, the violence continues, with reports of Russia’s use of chemical weapons; the plight of more than 11 million displaced Ukrainians inside and outside the country; and the death of thousands of civilians and soldiers on both sides.

Matthew Kenenitz, a current professor of English at Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, continues to raise awareness and spur action as the people of Ukraine continue to fight for their country against evil.

Kenenitz was born and raised in Ashland, Pa. He attended the former St. Ignatius Church in Centralia and Holy Spirit School in Mount Carmel, and eventually fell in love with teaching as his heart also grew for his Ukrainian heritage. His ancestors came from the Carpathian Mountains region of the country in 1915 before settling in Centralia.

After an encounter with the Metropolitan Archbishop of Philadelphia of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Borys Gudziak, during a Ukrainian festival in Minersville in July of 2019, Kenenitz was connected to Ukrainian Catholic University. He’s since built a life in Lviv. While his role as a professor of literature and literary theory is his job, he’s become a confidant and counselor to countless students and – since February – a passionate coordinator of humanitarian aid and voice for those united in a battle for their beloved country.

On April 12, Kenenitz spoke with The Catholic Witness and “Candid Catholic Convos” podcast host Rachel Troche, sharing messages of awareness, the realities of the situations his students and the Ukrainian people are facing, and words of hope rooted in faith.

What follows is a transcription of portions of the interview. The full, two-part feature can be heard in its entirely on the “Candid Catholic Convos” program on Spotify, airing April 24 and May 1. The interview is largely unedited on the podcast episodes, due to the gravity of the situation in Ukraine and the need for awareness about the plight of the Ukrainian people.

What does your current situation look like? Are you still able to be in contact with your students, and to continue teaching?

I came back to America on February 14. I had received so many phone calls from family and friends and it was just non-stop; everybody was worried about the Russian offensive. Honestly, I wasn’t worried [and] I had no plans to leave Ukraine. I was resolved to the fact that I would stay and weather out whatever came. But the volume of phone calls was just so high. I had a really busy schedule this semester; I was constantly on the go. I was doing what I was doing at the university, and then I’d be on the phone all night with people in America. My former students, when they saw me, said, “You have to just go home. Go home for two weeks. You can always come back.”

Other people can see you better than you can see yourself sometimes, so I took their advice and I got a plane ticket on February 12. My mother had called me crying on February 11, saying, “The Russians are going to come,” and I had just been at the opera…. It was kind of crazy to think that this was a situation that everyone had envisioned. So I bought a plane ticket the next night and I came home on the 14th. Little did I ever think that the war would start.

I’m actually right now at my cousin’s house in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and I remember it just like it was yesterday…. We were just sitting and talking and watching the news. All of a sudden they were showing a correspondent in Kyiv and a correspondent in Kharkiv and they said they heard blasts. The next thing you know, the reports started coming on that Russia was invading Ukraine. …

The past weeks have been absolutely surreal. I just kind of feel like I’m in a daze most of the time. Every day presents new trauma. I’m in very close connection with a lot of people in Ukraine. I send group messages out to my current classes and my former classes. We have group chats and telegrams. I send them a daily video just to let them know that I’m thinking about them, and to give them some words of inspiration and encouragement, or to tell them a little anecdote or something just to stay in contact. It’s virtually impossible to maintain individual contact with that amount of people, but it’s just been really surreal watching all of this happen.

There’s also this feeling of helplessness while I’m here in America. I recognize the fact that I’m safe, and I’m grateful for that, but then there is also this burning desire in me to be there because people that I’ve come to know and come to love and come to consider family the past three years are waiting to see what’s going to happen. Even when I’m in faculty meetings on Zoom or in classes on Zoom, I just want to hug people.

What are your students experiencing?

I am having classes, but it’s not classes as I would normally have them. They are severely modified. I might get one-half to two-thirds of my students in each class because students are volunteering, they’re working with journalists in translating information, they’re working toward humanitarian causes in Ukraine, they’re housing people who have been displaced. More than four million people are displaced outside of Ukraine, and about six or seven million people are displaced within Ukraine. Lviv is a city with about 800,000 people in population, but right now more than a million people are there.

The students are scattered, too. A lot of my female students are in various countries in Europe with their mothers and their siblings. They had to leave their fathers or their older brothers behind. It’s not just physical displacement; there’s a lot of psychological and emotional displacement as well. I got a therapist friend of mine from Chicago to offer group counseling sessions every Tuesday. Seven or eight people join. One of my colleagues joins from time to time. It’s important that they see that they’re not alone in this. The feelings of anger, the feelings of fear, the feelings of resentment – it’s not a singular experience, it’s a shared experience and we can kind of process through that together.

People are dealing with real situations. When the Yavoriv military base was attacked several weeks ago, one of my students e-mailed me and said, “I’m going to need some time off because I’m staying in Yavoriv. I’m OK, but one of the missiles went right into the area where my father was staying, and it took 15 hours to find his body. He died.” She apologized for any inconvenience it might cause me. I just sat and cried because I’m thinking, “How do I respond to this e-mail? What do I say?” Of course, words like “I’m sorry for your loss” mean something, but it’s deeper than that when you look at the senselessness of death and the situations that are happening in Ukraine.

I just got another message from another student the other day: “I’ve been unable to attend the last few weeks of the course due to the fact that I have a very difficult family situation. My grandmother died and my father went missing. I also lost a few of my friends because of the war. I am now taking care of another grandmother, as she is sick.”

These are just a sampling of very personal, very real issues. “Issue” is too light of a word to use for what people are facing. It’s hard for me because, here, even in some familial circumstances, people don’t understand what it is that I do. People will say, “You need to get over Ukraine. You’re in America, you need to focus on being in America now.” For me, I’m not dealing with talking heads on a screen. I’m not dealing with reading news reports. I’m dealing with living, breathing human beings – people that I’ve eaten with, people that I’ve walked with, people that I’ve shared time with, people that I’ve interacted with. When I was at Ukrainian Catholic University, I would interact with hundreds of people a day….

You can’t imagine how many students would come to me with familial problems, relationship problems, feelings of inadequacy, feelings of being overwhelmed. I wasn’t just an English teacher there; I was a resource, I was a counselor, I was a friend, somebody that people confided in. In terms of dealing with this on a personal level for me, it goes well beyond that of a teacher who traveled to another country to teach English, because I was a lot more than that to a lot of people over there.

You are also involved in humanitarian efforts. How has your Catholic upbringing influenced your involvement of helping others?

As I aged, the more I read, the more I realized it’s important to act. There’s that old phrase, “Sitting in a church doesn’t make you any more a Christian than sitting in a garage makes you a car.”

As I went to university and graduate school and did my own reading and processing in terms of the faith and its relationship to my life, I always emphasized faith and action – diakonia, service. It’s not enough just to go to church on Sunday. It’s something I believe 110 percent is all of our callings in life – to be there, to share, to support, to love, to care for one another.

We talk about following the example of Christ. It’s not just to sit and listen to Gospel stories on a Sunday and say, “Oh, that’s nice,” but to realize these Gospel lessons are not just things from 2,000 years ago; they’re speaking to us now.

As a Christian, as a Ukrainian Greek Catholic, I feel it’s my duty to raise as much awareness of the situation that’s going on in Ukraine, but also to gather as much humanitarian aid as possible…. I’m working locally with people who are asking for money because they either have family living with them or are hosting families. One of my former students and his father have several houses, and they’re housing families on their way to Romania. Some of my students and even former students are hosting families in Lviv. There’s another former student of mine who is trying to raise money for bullet-proof vests, night-vision goggles, kneepads and so on for the army….

The community outreach and response has just been phenomenal, and in some ways I go back and forth with using the words “faith in humanity.” Seeing the outpouring of care, the outpouring of generosity of people has really raised my spirits, especially when all these people I know are just living in fear and doing the day-by-day thing. We’re going to continue to do work and we’re going to continue to raise funds and collect items, because things are desperately needed.

What do your students or colleagues express as needs, in addition to our prayers and the humanitarian aid?

The biggest thing is spreading awareness. In the early days of the war, people were glued to their television sets, watching it and trying to understand what is going on. But as the war has gone on, it’s sort of in the background. Even our Metropolitan Archbishop, Borys, said we can’t allow this war to become backburner news. It’s live, it’s happening now. There are reports of the Russians using chemical weapons in Mariupol. It’s a very real thing going on each and every day.

Also, trying to get as much military aid for Ukraine right now. As one of my students pointed out quite poetically, “Humanitarian aid is great, money is great. We appreciate it. But it’s kind of like when your sink is clogged and the water is on. The water is spilling out of the sink and down to the floor. You start mopping the floor, but there is always going to be more water spilling onto the floor.” ….

It’s about awareness and trying to understand the evil that is going on, and the fact that Russia needs to be stopped. Say that Putin decides to take his bat and ball and go home to Russia; the world can’t say it’s over, because they’re always going to come back. That’s the reality. Russia has never, on the world stage, been forced to pay for the atrocities that have been committed. In the Holodomor, the great famine, 10-12 million people died from 1932-1933. Now this war. There have never been any type of reparations, there have never been any kind of trials for war crimes. They’ve never been held accountable for the atrocities that they’ve committed.

My students and colleagues and I have conversations online about the war, and then we’ll talk maybe about something else, but it always goes back to the war because we’ll get a notification or a siren will go off. It’s very hard to have a normal existence in these circumstances. The more awareness that is brought to the situation, hopefully some kind of resolution or victory can come faster if the world starts to support Ukraine in a stronger sense.

When Putin marched into Ukraine on February 24, diplomacy was thrown out the window. He lied to the world…. For the world to sit back while this maniac, this egoist, this narcissist does whatever he wants to do is unconscionable. How can you sit back and read these stories of children being raped and killed, shot execution-style? The stories of atrocities keep coming, and it’s unbelievable.

It is war. As Christians, when we talk about fighting Satan and evil, there’s no room to say, “Well maybe Satan needs to understand.” No, there is no understanding when it comes to fighting the evil one. That’s what we’re dealing with here with Putin. My students will say, “Matthew, are people in America this ambivalent about Hitler? Are people in America this ambivalent about Osama bin Laden?” These are their questions when they don’t see the world acting.

On the other hand, there is a steadfast spirit where they have the resolve. Putin has done something nobody’s been able to do before – he has united all of Ukraine. Even when I moved in, there was this sort of east-west distinction, and now everybody is together. We’re fighting evil…. The evil one walks among us. The evil one is present in this world. We need to fight that evil, for Truth.

(Photos courtesy of Matthew Kenenitz.)

By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness

Hear the full interview on “Candid Catholic Convos”

The two-part episode is available on the Diocesan website and on Spotify on April 24 and May 1 at: Catholic Perspective Radio Program, News, Faith, Inspiration, Information, (hbgdiocese.org) and on the Spotify app by searching “Candid Catholic Convos.”

Catch part two of the interview on the following radio stations:
WHYF AM 720, Shiremanstown, April 30 at noon and May 1 at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
WHVR-AM 1280, Hanover, May 1 at 8 a.m.
WKOK-AM 1070, Sunbury, May 1 at 6:30 a.m.
WWSM-AM 1510, Lebanon, May 1 at 7:00 a.m.
www.wisl1480.com, Shamokin, May 1 at 11:00 a.m.

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