From a dark bunker in Ukraine to a TAU graduation ceremony

Professor Hanna Lerner and Kirill Drik.

Kirill Drik credits TAU with helping him to achieve his dream

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A little more than a week ago, Kirill Drik fulfilled his dream and went on stage at Tel Aviv University (TAU) to receive his degree — a dream that began in the nightmare of a Ukrainian bunker.

Drik, a master’s degree student in TAU’s School of Political Science, Government, and International Affairs, had been caught up in the war between Russia and Ukraine, and for ten months hid from the Ukrainian army (who tried to recruit him) in a deserted and dark bunker, surrounded by the sounds of explosions, the company of rats, and an evil smell. Fortunately, his partner made sure to bring him food every day. Although there was hardly any active internet in the bunker, he continued his studies on Zoom with the help of TAU’s Coordinator of Advanced Degrees, the Head of the School, and the entire teaching staff.

“During the war in Ukraine, the biggest difficulty for me was to write and meet the course completion assignments,” says Drik. “The bunker I lived in, in the city of Dnipro, was a dark, abandoned shelter with only a small night lamp. There was hardly any internet, there was a terrible smell of sewage, the rats were walking between my legs, and in the background I constantly heard the echoes of explosions. The bunker was next to a ammunition factory, so Russian planes were constantly bombing the area and there were lots of alarms. I was scared and didn’t know if I would ever be able to return to my normal life.”

Only a few months before, Drik had lived in Israel and was working towards his TAU degree. He immigrated to Israel from Ukraine as a lone soldier in 2017 and served in the IDF full-time as a volunteer in the commando unit, despite some health problems. Upon his release from the army, he began his studies as a master’s student in political science at TAU.

But during the semester break in February 2022 Drik went to visit his parents in Dnipro, in eastern Ukraine. During his stay, his mother fell ill, was hospitalized, and he had to extend his vacation by five days until February 25th. The day before his flight back to Israel, war broke out between Russia and Ukraine, and Drik, who has dual Israeli and Ukrainian citizenship, was unable to leave the country, due to the obligation of all citizens to enlist to the army.

“After the war broke out, the Ukrainian army announced that everyone was being recruited to fight, and I had no choice but to run away and hide in a bunker for ten months,” Drik remembers. “My partner would bring me food and basic necessities every day.”

A positive point of light, almost the only one at that time, was Drik’s daily contact with Sigal Shachar, Coordinator of Advanced Degrees at TAU’s School of Political Science, Government and International Affairs. The Head of the School, Professor Hanna Lerner, also fully supported him and worked vigorously to recruit the entire teaching staff to ensure his graduation.

Confined to the bunker, Drik maintained a study routine that included four courses in Zoom, exams, and projects. “From the moment we realized that Kirill was hiding in Ukraine, it was very important for us to keep in touch with him almost daily,” Professor Lerner says. “I asked the lecturers to report to us regularly if he missed classes, and we all tried to prepare study materials so he would be ready for the classes that took place on Zoom. It could not have been easy for him, and we are very proud of Kirill, who did not give up and continued to study, even under the sound of shelling and alarms, while hiding for days in a bunker.”

Ten months later, and after four failed attempts to escape through the border, Drik suddenly received a phone call from Shachar, who informed him that after much effort TAU, in cooperation with the Lowy International School, had managed to arrange for him all the documents that were missing in order for him to leave Ukraine and return to Israel.

A little more than a week ago, at TAU, Drik succeeded in realizing his dream, and in an exciting ceremony, to the applause of the audience in the hall, he went on stage to receive his degree. He thanked the audience and said through his tears, “My story is a message of victory. Don’t let anything stop you. With the help of will, technology, and good people, you can succeed in doing anything.”

“When I received my degree I felt that I had finally returned to my homeland,” Drik says. “I feel that my homeland is Israel and not Ukraine. People here are children of God. The help I received turned Israel into my family. I am happy that I survived those ten months in Ukraine, during which time I fulfilled my dream to get a master’s degree in political science in Israel, and most of all I am happy that everything I did was not in vain. I know that for the rest of my life I will never stop being thankful for everything TAU has done for me. I am sure we will meet again when I pursue my PhD.”

"I know that for the rest of my life I will never stop being thankful for everything TAU has done for me."