Narrator: Another barrage before dawn. Ukrainian anti-aircraft batteries intercepting a Russian missile over the capital, one of two shot down this morning. As the assault closes in on Kyiv, two and a half million civilians are suddenly on the frontline.

Tiziana Dearing: The BBC February 25, 2022, the very beginning of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, a war that has claimed an estimated 10,000 lives in the country and displaced more than 7 million people. According to the BBC and the United Nations, one of those displaced was a college student. The war came to Sofiia Tarasiuk’s front door during her last year at university, and her whole life plan, including a master's in Kyiv, bombed away. Ultimately, she came here to find a classroom away from conflict. She's now studying at Brandeis University on a scholarship. We spoke with Sofiia this week. And I started by asking how long she's been here.

Sofiia Tarasiuk: I arrived in the United States one month ago. That was unexpected for me. And if you asked me if I plan to do this that year, in the beginning of this year, I would say no, my plan was to stay in Ukraine in my country to get master's degree in my country. I had a job. Everything was so wonderful. I had a lot of plans. A lot of friends and plans to travel in other countries. But you know, everything changed in one moment.

Dearing: So I want to get to that moment. And as I understand it, you're in your pajamas. You're at university. And someone knocks on the door.

Tarasiuk: Oh, yeah, that was morning. And I heard knocking in the door in my room. And my neighbor said, the war started and we need to go to the bomb shelter. And my friends and I went to the bomb shelter without any bags, documents, water, medicine. Just we and that's all we thought that it was a joke, because it's hard to understand that in the 21 century, we can have war.

Dearing: You didn't think Russia was going to attack?

Tarasiuk: Yeah, of course, at that time, we had a lot of news in newspapers, a lot of talking with different people that maybe, probably, one day that could happen. But it was really hard to understand that one day it could become a reality.

Dearing: So we've talked to a number of people who were caught by surprise that day, and then sought to leave. I'm assuming it wasn't as simple as you just go back up to your dorm room, get some clothes, get your papers, jump on a bus, and your home?

Tarasiuk: Actually, no, because that day, a lot of people would like to go out from the capital of Ukraine, from Kyiv. So there were a lot of people and not so much transport to go out. So that was a big problem, to find the transportation and my friend and I, we found one bus and paid a lot of money for that just to go out from Kyiv. And actually, we spent more than 30 hours to go, not even to my native city, just to Lviv. It's one city on the west of Ukraine. And then my parents went from my native city to Lviv and we saw each other there.

Dearing: How long should it take to get to Lviv?

Tarasiuk: Usually, it's just seven, eight hours. But at that day, it was 30 hours.

Dearing: During that process. Did you feel unsafe?

Tarasiuk: Of course, and you know, once we stopped to just to have a break because the road was really long. It was near Kyiv near a pin. And some people heard explosions. I don't, I didn't but some people heard that. And it was the first time I saw a panic, and how people reacted. And that was really awful.

Dearing: So you get to Lviv your parents drive to meet you. I understand you then went back home to your home in western Ukraine with your parents. You spent some time there in a bomb shelter, is that correct?

Tarasiuk: We have like a small variant of a bomb shelter in my house. And first weeks we every time we got alarmed about probably bombing our region. So we go to the bomb shelter.

Dearing: So the first time you left Ukraine, you went to volunteer, you felt like you had to get out of the country. Is that right?

Tarasiuk: Yeah, I found the opportunity to become a volunteer in Lithuania. And I spent five months there volunteering in one private school. And actually, for me, that was a nice time just to think, what I can do in my life, how I can plan something in such terrible times, how I can continue in my studying because that was the last year of my studying in my Ukrainian University. And then I finished it online. And that was a nice opportunity for me to help other people. A lot of people around the world help Ukrainian people. And for me, that was a nice opportunity just to give back something to that people who are so kind to Ukrainians.

Dearing: Was there ever a time during that period Sofiia? And we're again, we're talking with Sofiia Tarasiuk who is a student here at Brandeis University, left Ukraine was literally in her pajamas at university and had to go down to a bomb shelter on the day that the war started and has made, I think, in all fairness, an odyssey journey since then. Was there ever a time during that period, so now you've you've left university, you've spent time with your parents, you go to volunteer in Lithuania, you're trying to finish your degree online. Everything about what you thought was coming next in your life is uprooted. And you still have family, including a brother who can't leave Ukraine because of the policy that men between the ages of 18 and 60 can't leave so that they can be available to fight? What was your darkest night? And what was your brightest night, during those times?

Tarasiuk: The darkest night, I think, you know, I spent several months in Lithuania. And I had to return for a short period, just to get my diploma to apply for Brandeis University. So I left in my country for several days. And the most darkest period, it was when we got a message from our friends who are soldiers. And that may be on the border with Belarus, there are a lot of Russian soldiers, and maybe they could attack that night. Thanks to God everything was okay. That was just a moment. And now my family is still in my house, everything is normal. But that moment, I was so afraid of that moment, what to do, how to imagine my life without my house where I was raised. So for me, that was the darkest period. And actually the lightest period, it was when I got my scholarship. And at that time, I was in Lithuania. And one evening, I got a letter in my mail. And I was so happy to get this opportunity. So I bought a cake and brought this to my school where I was a volunteer, and together with all children, and always teachers were celebrated that moment. And actually, for me, it's the brightest period of this year. 

Dearing: What kind of cake? 

Tarasiuk: It was chocolate cake.

Dearing: Is that your favorite? 

Tarasiuk Yeah, I mean, okay. 

Dearing: Applying for a master's degree, applying for undergraduate is an overwhelming and daunting task, you have to figure out where you want to go to school, you have to find the scholarship options, there's tremendous amount of paperwork, you have to have your transcript, your documentation, you're in Lithuania, volunteering in the middle of a war. How did you have the presence of mind to even find this opportunity?

Tarasiuk: You know, that was very hard for me to do every scene to apply. But my family supported me in every step. And that's why I got enough strength to apply. But at that time, I was thinking a lot about my life, what to do, what to plan. I'm a very young girl. I'm 21 years old. Everything was so nice in my life. But once it was damaged, and I need to have another plan, what to do, even it's hard to plan. I need to have a plan. So I was trying to find something. I applied for five different scholarships, and I got a letter of acceptance only from Brandeis University. And I was so happy but also at the time, I understood that it was the biggest challenge for me, as I need to get my visa to go to another country in another corner of the planet without my family, my friends. But what is my other way?

Dearing: Do you think you're brave?

Tarasiuk: I'm brave, but I didn't have a lot of courage like other Ukrainians who are still in Ukraine and who are still do too much, much more than me, who are soldiers who are volunteers. Yeah, I'm brave, but in another aspect. 

Dearing: Do you talk to your family every day? Almost every day
and are they safe?

Tarasiuk: Yes, they are now in west of Ukraine in their house, my parents, the teachers, and they're trying to create a safe space for studying for children in their school, my brother, he is a student and he also has his job. So now everything is okay. But I never know when I can get a message that something changed.

Dearing: So, I picture you, I'm gonna go back to that moment in the pajamas, right? On the day that the war begins, Russia invades, and you think your life is going down a path, you're, you're clearly somebody who plans right? And you've got this planned out, you think your life is going down a path? And a moment happens that day in your life shoots off in another direction? Is the goal to loop it back around to get back on the plan from let's say, February 1, 2022? Or is your life just heading in a different direction now? 

Tarasiuk: It's now hard to predict that but I have a desire to return to my country. I know that Ukrainian people and Ukrainian youth deserve to have all the best, and I feel that I can help.

Dearing: What do you want people to understand that maybe we don't?

Tarasiuk: I want to say that our country, in the beginning of the war, has our own choice to develop and to be one of the countries who has a democratic style of life. And when the war started, Russia decided to make this choice without us, to be a part of Russia or die. But at that situation, we chose another way, to fight for our country. We don't want victory. We want to just have peace and we will do as much as possible to achieve our goal.

Dearing: That was Sofiia Tarasiuk, master's student at Brandeis University who came here from Ukraine.