By Sabrina Bates
MVP Regional News Editor
Camden High School foreign language teacher Arlette Hargis continues to advocate for the people of Ukraine. Most recently, she spent Thursday evening on the campus of the University of Tennessee at Martin, where she spoke about the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia and the conditions of her home country.
Hargis moved to Camden 16 years ago and is a naturalized U.S. citizen. Her home in Ukraine is in the area of Chernigov, 20 miles from the Russian border and approximately 100 miles north of Kyiv. Ukraine is the 45th largest country in the world, comparable in land mass to about 87 percent of Texas.
“My heart is broken,” Hargis shared with students and faculty gathered at the UTM Paul Meek Library. Beside Hargis was a projection screen that displayed dismal images of the country under attack by Russians. Buildings are piles of rubble; streets are in pieces and bridges are decimated.
Hargis explained that 31 years ago, Ukraine had parts that were vibrant with tourism, but another part of the country was “drowning in poverty and waste.” Since 1991, when Ukraine broke from Russia and became an independent country, it has had six presidents, typically elected by Ukraine citizens and expected to serve a five-year term. The road to democracy and independence from Russia has been a struggle for Ukraine. The country’s sixth and current president is Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
“He is not an actor. He is a hero. And if he was a lawyer, he’d be killed,” Hargis said. She described the current conditions in a country that has been under attack by Russian troops since Feb. 24. She explained two out of three children have left their homes in Ukraine. Russian troops destroyed 37 of the 52 school buildings for kindergarten students. They targeted early education facilities.
“Education is very important in Ukraine, especially early education. At age 3, children go to music, art and dance schools. They (Ukrainians) are still trying to go back,” Hargis said. As of Sept. 30, there were a little more than 7.5 million Ukrainian refugees across Europe. She said people in Poland are housing refugees in private homes and the country is providing education scholarships for refugees to attend universities.
In her home city, an emotional Hargis described how Russian tanks “could just run over structures, running over children …” Attacks were made on cell phone towers and there are mines placed throughout the forests, making it more difficult for Ukrainians to escape. She talked of visiting with the mother of one of her former students – a 30-year-old who was killed by Russian troops. “He had no weapons,” Hargis shared.
“Ukrainians live just like you and me – raising families, celebrating anniversaries and birthdays – before Russia came to ‘liberate them,’” Hargis said. There are no banks, no money, no gas and no food, making the situation even more grim for those left in the country. She said there are 12-13-year-olds fighting alongside 17-18-year-olds. A system of underground tunnels is in place, thanks to teamwork.
Countries and private donors have given Ukraine drones, strobes and winter clothes. She said women are teaching younger children left behind how to knit socks.
Another guest speaker, author and researcher Dr. Martin Nekola, shared information on the global impact of the invasion. Nekola’s research centers around non-democratic and Communist countries. He said some speculate that if the war ended now, Russia would need 20 years to recover. Living conditions for Russians continue to deteriorate as a result of sanctions. With nuclear power plants shut down due to dependence on Russian uranium, Germany is reconsidering its energy policies. Fuel is reportedly $8 per gallon in Europe. Inflation has taken its toll, with a reported 240 percent increase in electricity and 370 percent spike in gas. Nekola said the European Union has “shown incredible strength and support for Ukraine.”
Ukraine is a candidate to become part of the European Union.
Nekola and Hargis said the future of the war between Ukraine and Russia is uncertain, as well as its impact on global affairs.
“Right now, a lot of smaller dictators around the world are watching and learning evil has no power. They (people of Ukraine) have more hope now than we did in the 90s,” Hargis concluded.