The following writing came out of a seven-week project I worked on in my Critical Contexts class at the Institute of Design during Spring 2022. During the course, we read and surveyed a variety of theories and methods that helped us evaluate “the humans” and the world we live in. I, along with my two teammates, developed a prototype of an interactive world map breaking down the complexities of the ongoing Russo-Ukranian war to present what we found to be a perspective that usually does not get the spotlight: the human perspective. Although the characters are fictional, they are either a direct representation of the people we spoke to (names changed) or a synthesis of the literature review we conducted.
On a winter evening in the heart of New York City, Oleksandra Verveha was in her cozy armchair in her luxurious two-bedroom apartment. She sat immersed in her book with the television running in the background. At 35, Oleksandra is an accomplished investment banker by profession and a traveler by passion.
Around 7pm, a popular news channel started broadcasting about the war between Russia and Ukraine. As a Ukrainian descendant, Oleksandra’s attention quickly shifted to the news channel.
Russia had invaded Ukraine, declaring it a ‘special military operation.’ The United States of America and other countries rushed to support Ukraine by providing military and humanitarian aid. They also placed heavy sanctions against Russia in the hopes of destabilizing its economy to help reduce the impact of war.
Oleksandra swiftly opened her laptop to read more about the ongoing war on the internet. She learned from Reuters that thousands of people were killed, millions more were displaced, and there was already billions of dollars of property damage. It also highlighted that poverty was starkly increasing, which was only at two percent before the war.
Oleksandra recollected the time when she first visited Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, where her grandparents and relatives lived. She was six years old then and was welcomed by her family and neighbors. It was one of her most cherished memories.
While she was there, Oleksandra made a friend, Nina, who was two years older than her. They have remained in touch ever since, until a few years ago. Nina had two kids and was running a restaurant with her husband Dmytro when Oleksandra last contacted her four years ago.
Shivering with anxiety, Oleksandra immediately sent an email to Nina to make sure she and her family were safe. While she anxiously waited to hear back from Nina, Oleksandra met her colleague, Akari, who is from Japan, at work. Akari said that her brother-in-law, who is Russian, could not withdraw his money from a Russian bank because of all the sanctions imposed and removed from SWIFT.
She said, “My brother-in-law, Boris, was working for a company based in the USA and they were paying his salary in US Dollars which was being deposited into his Russian bank account. Suddenly, the transactions could not be made, so he asked them to change the receiving bank to another, which they could not do for quite some time. Boris was lucky because he had another bank account in Israel. Otherwise, he could have suddenly lost a lot of his money and wouldn’t be able to live a normal life, as his Russian bank account was frozen.”
Finally, after ten days, Nina replied. She wrote in the email:
The war hit us badly and we had to leave the country. Due to heavy shelling in our city of Mariupol, our home and restaurant were destroyed. We are now in Ireland staying with a sweet host family. It has been the most difficult for our kids, they are still not able to cope with the trauma. It is going to take us a very long time to recover from the war and build our lives back. I am hopeful that I will go back to my country soon and get back to my normal life, although it will never be the same.
Upon reading the email, Oleksandra broke down in tears. She immediately decided to visit Nina and booked a flight to Ireland.
Upon reaching Dublin, she went straight to the place where Nina had been staying. She was greeted by an Indian man in his mid forties, who warmly said Nina was expecting her. As she walked in, Nina came running to her. They hugged each other and cried. Oleksandra thanked the host, Arjun, for providing them a safe home and food. Later, for dinner, they all cooked and ate Indian and Ukrainian meals together.
Oleksandra learned that the government of Ireland reached out to its citizens, asking for volunteers to help the refugees. Arjun is an immigrant from India who moved to Ireland with his family five years ago in the hopes of better job opportunities and education for his two children. He was closely following the media coverage about the war, and said something that really struck him was that countries across the world were taking a stance, either in support of Russia or against. But there were a few countries that chose to remain neutral. India was one country to do so because of the strong military and economic ties the country has with Russia and Ukraine.
Arjun said he read an article by Al Jazeera that India was heavily criticized for not taking a stance. Geopolitical dynamics are at play in countries that have the power and resources, especially NATO countries—the United States being the most powerful member. Their agendas and goals are to keep strengthening their political and military alliances, while some of these countries wade between sanctioning Russia and battling their needs for what it supplies them, e.g., oil and gas. In situations such as this, nations around the world, especially developing economies, are encouraged to pursue their own interests.
Arjun talked about his brother who lives in India with his wife and two daughters. He needs to provide for a family of four, and pay his daughters’ tuition fees.
Arjun explained, “They had a difﬁcult time during COVID trying to manage the expenses. They were almost happy that the crisis ended, but now all the prices have increased. They are barely able to manage and hope this ends soon. I feel bad for not being able to help him at this time. I hope the government does something.”
This conversation with Arjun intrigued Oleksandra; she never thought about the impact of a war from this perspective. She understood the impact runs deeper than what she saw on the news media in her country. India is a heavily populated country, rich in diversity and once colonized by the British for a hundred years. The country had to rebuild itself after gaining independence in 1947. Any crisis can be catastrophic to the economy, which hits hard on its population.
Oleksandra was connecting the global dots. From her conversation with Arjun, she understood that the war might have an impact on the Indian economy. Something really stood out to her from the conversation with Arjun. He shared a news article on Business Today, a leading news media in India:
In a country where an average household spends two-thirds of the daily income on buying a vegetarian meal, rising prices of key ingredients following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will make Indians feel the pinch. This may lead to people having little left to spend on other essential items like health and education.
With additional costs stemming from the crisis, not forgetting inflation, the gross margin turnaround could well be pushed into the start of 2024, if the Ukraine crisis persists. And if markets are anything to go by, both equity markets and futures, people are persuaded that things could take longer before ‘normalcy’ is restored. Uncertainty breeds volatility.
Oleksandra spent three days in Ireland with the two families, learning each other’s cultures, and had some really important thought-provoking conversations with Arjun and Nina.
After tearful goodbyes, Oleksandra was back in her New York apartment. While on her flight, she kept thinking about what Arjun shared, that “things could take longer before ‘normalcy’ is restored.” She was determined to learn more about the impact of war in countries that are not involved in the war. Thankful for her social skills and interest in making friends, she started contacting them, especially those who migrated to the United States.
She met Emma and Darey, her friends from college, at a coffee house. Darey, whose family is in Nigeria, and his father, an efficient farmer, have leveraged Nigeria’s rich soil to grow and export large amounts of ground nuts, sesame, and cashew nuts to other countries. Darey said:
In recent years, my family experienced large repercussions to our business, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on their country and the world. Now, fertilizer and oil prices have gone up, impacting our lives. We had to shut down operations on one of the farms. Also, due to the insecurity in the state, largely stemming from insurgencies (all due to economic impact on the nation), we had to withdraw my two sisters from boarding school for their own safety.
To gain a better context, Oleksandra asked Darey to share a news article with her. He showed her one from BBC News:
The war in Ukraine could have a devastating effect on some African states, threatening their economies and seeing governments come under diplomatic pressure to take sides in the escalating feud between Russia and Western powers.
The article quoted Mark Heywood, a South African human rights and social justice activist:
Even before the first missiles have been fired this war has taken a dreadful toll: diverting billions of dollars into rearmament and away from tackling poverty, pandemics, education, inequality and the burgeoning climate crisis in a critical year.
Emma, who is an American, agreed and added, “I am also aware that the media is biased to a great extent. However, it’s still hard not to be influenced by the anti-Russian propaganda that the majority of the American media is sharing. This has created tension between me and my husband’s family, who have very close Russian friends and relatives. In addition, I feel the war’s impact on my family’s construction business. The sanctions on importing iron and steel from Russia are negatively impacting our business.”
Oleksandra truly understood the impact of war. She talked to Nina later that night about the conversation she had with Darey and Emma, telling her what she realized:
Today, the countries of the world and their citizens are more connected than one might think. Like in a chemical chain reaction where one reactant causes additional reactions, an event like the Russo-Ukrainian war has impacted lives across the world, and it’s harder to see from a singular standpoint. I am glad I spoke with everyone to understand the granularity.
She now sees how it is human life that is truly impacted. Her recent experiences and conversations opened her eyes to reality. She noticed how the fuel and other commodity prices increased in New York and realized the war had an impact on American citizens as well.