CSUN sophomore tennis player Yuliia Zhytelna.

Cal State University Northridge (CSUN) sophomore and student-athlete Yuliia Zhytelna can only watch, pray and hope for the safety of her native Ukraine, its people and a return to the normalcy she remembers.

The news out of that European country has been brutal since it was invaded by Russia on Feb. 24 with the whole world watching. Nearly 700 civilian deaths — 48 of them children — had been confirmed as of March 15 by the United Nations and other independent sources. The city council of Mariupol estimated that 2,187 residents have been killed since the start of invasion.

Government officials in Ukraine say 1,300 Ukrainian soldiers have died in the fighting. US officials have estimated between 5,000 and 6,000 Russian soldiers were killed in the first two weeks of fighting. Those figures could be much higher because no full accounting of casualties can occur until the attacks end.

The Russians this week were continuously bombarding Kyiv — the capital city and where Zhytelna was born — Mariupol and other Ukrainian cities with heavy artillery. Nothing is being spared from airstrikes or bombings; not schools, hospitals or churches.

“I’m okay, but …” Zhytelna said, her voice trailing off as she struggles to find the right words to express herself.

“It’s been hard to concentrate on school and tennis the first couple of weeks [of the spring semester]. I’ve calmed down a bit now. But at first it was so hard. I was checking the news all the time, every five minutes. I’m reading everything, and talking with my parents. With my mind, I was with my family in a bomb shelter … it was just crazy.

“Every time I saw the message ‘air danger in Kyiv, go to your bomb shelter,’ my heart would stop for a second. I’m trying to go back to my usual self but it is so hard.”

She said her family — parents Volodymyr and Natalia Zhytelna,  who have four other children besides Yuliia — was recently evacuated to Poland.

A firefighter walks outside a destroyed apartment building after a bombing in a residential area in Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, March 15, 2022. Russia’s offensive in Ukraine has edged closer to central Kyiv with a series of strikes hitting a residential neighborhood as the leaders of three European Union member countries planned a visit to Ukraine’s embattled capital. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

“They are safe; I’m relieved,” Zhytelna said, adding that her city, Kyiv, was “damaged.”

She remains in constant contact with them and her friends in Ukraine through social media. 

“Every day something is happening,” Zhytelna said. “Most of my friends in Ukraine have Instagram. The capital has some good [WiFi] security. In Kyiv, everyone has a connection. My friends say, ‘it’s scary but we’re good.’

“I was talking with another friend from Nova Kahovka which, unfortunately, is occupied by the Russians. She had a connection but it was scary. She said there was a shelling [of bombs] everyday, and they had to be in the bomb shelter every day … I think they’re fine.”

“Legitimate” Talent

Zhytelna, who turns 19 this summer, came to the United States nearly two years ago to attend CSUN on a tennis scholarship. She carries a double major — broadcast journalism and urban planning — and speaks multiple languages, including English, Russian and her native Ukrainian.

After “redshirting” her freshman year, she’s developed into a competitive singles and doubles player for the Lady Matadors, who currently have an overall 5-3 match record heading into their weekend contests against Cal State Fullerton on March 18, and UC Irvine on March 20. 

CSUN Coach Gary Victor said he sees “top potential” in Zhytelna’s game, which was also nurtured by former professional and fellow Ukranian Natalia Medvedeva.

“She’s very talented, athletic and strong,” Victor said of Zhytelna, who is 1-1 in singles and 1-1 in doubles. “A legitimate D-I player, for sure.”

But the coach said it is also apparent the turmoil in her homeland is taking a toll on Zhytelna.

“It’s hard for it not to,” he said. “She feels the pressure every day of not knowing what’s going on with her family, being displaced. But she’s doing all the things she can do.

“She’s a strong girl. She’s really doing her best to stay focused as a student-athlete as much as she can, and control what she can control. But it’s an incredible load to put on a young person, or any person; having to deal with this kind of stress on a daily basis, it’s really unimaginable.”

Zhytelna said her teammates — who come from Spain, Poland, Mexico and Russia as well as the US — have been very supportive in this difficult time. Magdalena Hedrzak, a sophomore from Poland, had her family help arrange for the housing of Zhytelna’s family after their evacuation. And redshirt senior Ekaterina Repina, a Russian native who is Zhytelna’s doubles’ partner, is her best friend on the team.

“They’ve been incredible for my mental health. I can tell them everything,” Zhytelna said. “At the same time, I wish I could have another Ukraine person who is feeling the same [to talk with besides] my friends on the internet. But my teammates have done a great job in supporting and understanding.”

Educating CSUN Classmates About the Conflict

Since the current invasion began, Zhytelna has been explaining the current situation to inquiring classmates and others.

This is not the first time the two countries have fought, she said. Ukraine was at one time part of the Russian empire before declaring its independence in 1991. And she spoke of living through an eight-year conflict between the two countries when she was growing up.

“These conflicts were in the east and south, and it felt ‘normal’ for me,” Zhytelna said. “When I came here at 17, I would talk to my friends here and they didn’t know where Ukraine was, what’s happening and why, and why we’re not Russian. I felt I had to explain: Ukraine was part of Russia but we’ve never been Russians.”

She said the university has been considering creating a “calm place” for distressed Ukrainian students to congregate, and to also provide any needed mental health services.

“I am hopeful,” she said.

More than anything, Zhytelna wants to reunite with her family and friends in her homeland — and have a homeland to go back to that she recognizes.

“I think the whole world understands that Ukrainians have been brave … how we fight for our home,” Zhytelna said. “We all wish to come back home and help our country. I really want to help our people and country be even better.

“I think all Ukrainians want to come back home. Before, I came here for better opportunities. But now I feel I have to come back home and help.”