Studying in a war zone, Humber College paralegal student in Ukraine hopes to graduate this spring

20-year-old Illia Marholin deals with daily dangers of life in besieged Zaporizhzhia Oblast region

Studying in a war zone, Humber College paralegal student in Ukraine hopes to graduate this spring
Humber College student Illia Marholin, now in Ukraine, is being helped by professor Jasteena Dhillon

Illia Marholin went back home to Ukraine in the spring of 2020 after finishing his first semester in the paralegal program at Humber College in Toronto. He knew things were a bit up in the air about whether his return to school in the fall of that year would mean in-class or online learning, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, almost two years later, what he didn’t bargain for was to still be in Ukraine, continuing his studies, with a war raging around him.

 “On February 24, I was awakened by powerful explosions. Our airport was bombed,” says Marholin, who was living in Melitopol, one of the first cities targeted by Russian forces when it invaded Ukraine.

“My city was occupied on the same day,” he adds, “with columns of Russian tanks driving along the city’s main street.” With a population of about 150,000 before the invasion, Melitopol is known as a transportation hub, given the intersection of some major highways, and is crucial to Russia’s plans to overrun southern and eastern Ukraine.

Over the next few days, there were many street fights, with outnumbered Ukrainian troops eventually retreating and the city quickly filling up with Z-marked vehicles, the sign of the Russian occupiers. It’s also known as the city whose mayor was among the first to be kidnapped by Russian forces after the invasion.

“The first week was the hardest and most disturbing,” Marholin says, pointing out the hardships of war were felt almost immediately - communication interruptions, power outages, lack of food, all under the roar of explosions. Putting his life at risk, he even was part of demonstrations protesting the cuts to the internet.

However, Marholin, 20 years old and unable to leave his homeland because of restrictions on men between 18 and 60 leaving the country, has shown remarkable resilience despite the harrowing situation. He’s managed to attend all his online classes and keep up with his homework, even when internet and electricity blackouts would come and go without notice.

“I try to attend all lectures and complete assignments,” he says during an interview using WhatsApp. “Sadly, sometimes I have had to interrupt my studies and move to a safer place because of the explosions.” But whenever possible, even for online classes that end at 2 am his time, he is there, ready to learn. 

He plans to graduate from the two-year Humber program this spring, though there was the dilemma of finding a paralegal placement to give him the required hours to leave with his diploma. One of his professors, Jasteena Dhillon, is determined to make sure that Marholin completes the program.

“I knew that Illia must be experiencing these challenges and wanted to help,” says Dhillon, who spent more than 20 years as an international human rights lawyer working in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and South Africa.

“I also knew from his other professors that he was keeping up with his classes and doing extremely well. It is my duty as a professor to ensure my students are supported to learn and grow.”

One of the biggest challenges in helping Marholin find the 120-hour placement he needed, Dhillon says, is the confidentiality and cybersecurity issues that make it difficult to do such a placement online, especially when dealing with specific client cases. Luckily, she has been able to find him the required hours for his placement, doing research and analysis in the areas of provincial offences, administrative law and human rights.

Marholin’s original plan was to graduate from the Humber program, the largest paralegal diploma course in Canada, and then look at working or studying further in Canada, with the dream of working in human rights or immigration law, perhaps even by becoming a lawyer. That is a dream he still hopes to pursue, though the war in Ukraine has put it on hold for now.

With the internet so spotty, Marholin has mostly been trying to do his schoolwork using his phone and cellular data, not Wi-Fi - “not the easiest thing to do,” he says. He admits that the internet issues he deals with are not dissimilar to what other international students studying at Canadian schools face as they returned to their home countries during the pandemic, even without a war. However, the day-to-day challenges he faces have been exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In addition to the time zone differences, and internet issues, Marholin particularly feels the isolation from sole online learning. He met his fellow students in person in his first semester but hasn’t seen them since, and even online discussion and work or study groups can’t replace that in-person interaction.

Not being in Canada to study also means not being able to practice and perfect his English, something Marholin worries about, as he feels it is “easy to lose those skills” without regular reinforcement.

Dhillon was particularly concerned when Marholin went “dark” for a few days. He wasn’t responding to her emails or messages, and, sometimes, she admits, it was hard not to think the worst, reflecting on her own experiences in war zones and with those with whom she has interacted, including prisoners of war.

Fortunately, Marholin got back in touch with her once he had reached the nearby city Zaporizhzhia, still in the hands of Ukraine. It is a major destination for those fleeing the worst conflict areas in Ukraine. This includes the devastated city of Mariupol, where tens of thousands of civilians are trapped under the most wretched of conditions, with only a trickle of civilians able to escape daily, as the efforts to set up a humanitarian corridor have been stymied.

Despite being only a short distance away, it was a bit of a disturbing journey between Melitopol and Zaporizhzhia, says Marholin, who passed through 36 checkpoints, manned by either Russian or Ukrainian forces. Despite now being out of Russian-occupied territory, Marholin admits he still doesn’t feel completely safe, with the frontlines of the war just miles away.

Marholin says he and his family have worked to help others during these hard times. On behalf of the Jewish community, his father organized and coordinated the evacuation of residents of the south and southeast regions of Ukraine to other countries in Eastern Europe and somewhat safer western Ukraine. His mother, a therapist for children with autism, has worked at the local humanitarian aid centre to help needy residents, especially the disabled and the elderly.

Marholin himself has taken part in the unloading of food and medicine donations. But while in Melitopol, he found he could participate in these actions less and less, “as it became unsafe to be on the streets of the city,” especially for boys and men due to the risk of being kidnapped.

Russia’s reasons for wanting to invade Ukraine include wanting to protect the rights of Russian-speaking Ukrainians, especially in the eastern part of the country, and the so-called “de-Nazification” of Ukraine. Many see these as bizarre, especially given that the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is Jewish and a native Russian speaker. Marholin, who is part Jewish and “speaks Russian much better than Ukrainian,” agrees.

“I have never felt discriminated against,” Marholin says, noting that most Ukrainians use either language easily in everyday life. Regardless of what religion one follows or which language one speaks, he says, “what makes you Ukrainian is what is in your heart.”

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