In the fight for the future of the free world, Ukrainian youth will continue to play a leading role in more ways than one. Not only can they be the ones to ultimately rebuild their nation and fledgling democracy; but they can also help awaken their international peers, including young Americans, to the fragility of democracy and the critical role of citizens in defending it. This leadership by example is needed now more than ever as our world, including America, struggles with real threats to freedom and democracy.
Ukraine’s reconstruction will be a decades-long effort requiring the participation of a new generation of leaders capable of realizing the Ukrainian dream of European integration, prosperity, and democracy; yet nearly 700,000 Ukrainian students and 25,000 educators have been displaced since Russia’s invasion (World Bank). Over 2,400 Ukrainian schools have been damaged and over 330 educational institutions have been destroyed. In occupied territories, Russians are taking over school curricula with Russian propaganda.
In the wake of this disruption, we can help Ukrainians continue their educations by granting scholarships for Ukrainians to study at U.S. colleges and universities. In doing so, we can empower Ukrainian youth with the skills required to return home to rebuild Ukraine as a democracy that pays tribute to the enormous sacrifice of their people as they defend not only their homes but also the Free World as a whole. The benefits of this exchange are not just to offer Ukrainian scholars a chance to continue their educations, but also to educate American scholars by Ukrainian example. In addition to providing Ukrainian scholars a reprieve from the war upending their futures, we can create the opportunity for them to engage with their American peers who have the potentially short-lived luxury of waking up without the fate of democracy on their minds.
We Americans are in desperate need of Ukraine’s reminder of the freedom that is a stake and the courage required to defend that freedom. Here at home, democracy is increasingly threatened by radical positions on both sides. On the left, rigid ideology, judgementalism, and cancelling increasingly impinge on freedom of speech. On the right, a dangerous cult of personality is eroding rule of law and feeding violence. As both extremes gain ground, they eat the mainstream. In this climate, imagine what American youth could learn from their international peers, especially those in Ukraine whose people are laying down their lives for the democracy that we in the U.S. are at increasingly allowing to slip away.
The three of us have proudly made America our adopted home after emigrating or seeking asylum. We have experienced life in undemocratic nations where basic rights like freedom of speech and due process of law did not exist or were repressed. Through our foreign policy, humanitarian, and peace-building work, we know that democracy does not live in a bubble. To believe that Ukraine’s fight for freedom and our own are not deeply interconnected is short-sighted and dangerous. The result of Ukraine’s epic battle will shape not only the future of Europe, but also of American democracy. When democracy loses anywhere in the world, it is weakened everywhere. When democracy wins in one nation, all democracies get stronger.
The future of the free world will depend on our ability to build strong global alliances in support of democracy. Those alliances can begin on campuses across the world where young people are coming together across national boundaries to exchange ideas, shape one another’s worldviews, and learn not just from the history in their textbooks, but also from the history being written in our world today. Among the conversations they share about climate change, social justice, and economic models should be the ones concerning today’s threatening rise of authoritarianism and populism, and the actions required from all citizens to make a democracy work.
We believe we speak on behalf of legions of freedom-fighters when we say that, despite its imperfections, America remains a beacon of hope for democracy the world over. Let us learn from what Ukrainian youth can teach us and let us support their epic battle. Their victory will be our own, but only if we step into our power and responsibility to play a role.
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