One year of war

BY LUC SELS. Tomorrow marks one year since Russia attacked Ukraine. Those hoping the invasion would be over soon now find there seems to be no end to the madness. Those believing that wars can be fought in a clean, targeted, and precise manner now see how destruction dehumanises entire regions and how barbarity causes great suffering among many civilians – particularly those without the resources or strength to flee. Those assuming that, all in all, the situation would remain containable can only conclude that local wars no longer exist. The impact on global food security, market prices, and geopolitical (dis)order is massive. Indeed, in times of war, we all lose.

Written by Luc Sels, KU Leuven rector. He tweets via @LucSels.
Rector Luc Sels | © KU Leuven – Rob Stevens

We must never get used to the images and stories reaching us from Bucha and Bakhmut. War must never become just another item on the news. We must not slacken in our efforts to show solidarity. Solidarity is what you’ve shown, and I want to thank you for it. The support of a strong University community is crucial in times of duress. Hence this call to action, a call to keep supporting those suffering due to the situation in Ukraine, but also to pay attention to all people in need facing deep human suffering and material loss due to violence or natural disasters.

Until 11 March, our Ukrainian students are hosting the exhibition “Unissued diplomas” in the gallery of the University library. It shows the poignant stories of 36 Ukrainian students who lost their lives in this sheer folly. Take a moment to reflect on this. Absorb their stories, which are beyond words.

How the Emergency Fund is being used

Right after the invasion, KU Leuven took a stand. Several research groups offered a temporary position to a displaced Ukrainian researcher; numerous colleagues have done their utmost to provide the best possible welcome to these researchers and their family members. KU Leuven has become a hub for student refugees: hundreds of Ukrainian citizens and their families have had help in the past year with all possible questions about higher education in Flanders and Belgium – by phone and e-mail or at the welcome desk in the University Hall.

We’re also working towards a common future. In the past year, for instance, we have concluded ten exchange agreements with leading Ukrainian universities. This semester, we’ll welcome the first students as a result of that endeavour. Belarusian and Russian researchers and students – who didn’t want this dreadful invasion any more than we did – were not left out in the cold either. They’re still welcome.

In the months following the invasion, the KU Leuven Emergency Fund (webpage in Dutch) quickly raised half a million euros. We’re using these resources to support Ukrainian students and researchers on the run or, when necessary, to prolong the stay of those already at KU Leuven. The examples below illustrate other uses for the Emergency Fund.

With the support of the Fund, the Transcultural Trauma Care for Refugees Team at PraxisP (webpage in Dutch) provides care for Ukrainian refugees who have experienced loss, uprootedness, and collective violence and have concerns about migration, integration, (children’s) development, and family relationships. In individual and group therapy sessions, they learn how to handle the consequences of trauma. Students and staff members can share their stories in support groups.

The Emergency Fund is used for language training. The financial support makes it possible for the Leuven Language Institute to organise more courses on Dutch as a foreign language and to offer them free of charge to Ukrainian refugees.

All prospective students without a Flemish educational background have to show in their application that they meet the requirements to study at KU Leuven. Under normal circumstances, these students have to pay a processing fee. We’ve decided to waive this fee for refugees in Belgium – regardless of their nationality – and to use money from the Emergency Fund instead. In total, 124 refugees have applied to KU Leuven, including 67 students with Ukrainian nationality.

Solidarity-showing partner in times of crisis

Some have asked us why we’re making an effort for Ukraine and not for Afghanistan or Ethiopia, for instance. But the truth is: we’re doing that as well. In case of major crises, including the Taliban’s assumption of power, the floods in Pakistan, the student protests in Iran, or the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, we immediately extend a helping hand to students and staff members with roots in the affected regions. In a crisis like the Ethiopian civil war, quiet diplomacy is the better option.

A committee led by myself and the Vice Rector for International Policy is monitoring global developments with a potential impact on students and staff members. Whenever there’s a major incident – an attack, a flood, a war – a crisis unit sets to work right away to support the staff and students at risk on site and to map out the impact on those with roots in the affected region. Pangaea deserves special mention in this respect. As a home away from home, Pangaea provides support in times of crisis. Other KU Leuven campuses are developing similar initiatives. We’re using the collaboration with Scholars at Risk to offer a haven to researchers who need one.

All donations already made will be spent on the Ukraine crisis. Future donations to the Emergency Fund, however, will be used for more than just Ukraine: we want it to be an academic solidarity fund to provide even better support for students, scholars, and partner universities in crisis areas. After all, we need to be flexible given the large number of international crises with an immediate impact on the KU Leuven community. We’re already extending trauma care to our Iranian students, for instance, and we’re trying to find resources to scale up this initiative even further.

Olivier Vandecasteele

Crises like those in Ukraine and elsewhere should prompt us time and again to denounce flagrant human rights violations. It is with great concern that I call your attention to the inhumane conditions in which Olivier Vandecasteele is being held hostage by the Iranian regime. Olivier is an alumnus of UC Louvain and KU Leuven. Watch this video appeal by his sister Nathalie to the KU Leuven community. Support the family in its quest for justice.

Olivier’s dire predicament calls for a quick solution. It shows we must not let our guard down – for him and for so many others. The ideals of human rights are not a given for everyone. Freedom and equality do not become a reality automatically. The freedom and equality of others also begin with us. Let’s work towards those goals together. That is our mission, the mission of our University.

Luc Sels, Rector of KU Leuven