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Graduate student continues efforts in Ukraine with vulnerable communities

Mar 10, 2023

It has been over a year since Indiana University Bloomington graduate student Dafna Rachok returned to her native Ukraine, thinking she was just going back to do field research for her doctorate in sociocultural anthropology. Her current research focuses on sex workers in Ukraine and other communities who are at risk.

Now upon the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, she looks back at the work she did after having to reorient herself in a war-torn country.

Rachok and her partner, Ivan Shmatko, helped coordinate the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Force. They helped not only with providing supplies such as medicine and night-vision goggles but with finding housing or helping Ukrainians flee the country, which Rachok said was an emotional roller coaster.

  IU graduate student Dafna Rachok delivers a box of medicine. IU graduate student Dafna Rachok delivers a box of medicine.Her work helped her earn the John H. Edwards Fellowship, one of IU’s most prestigious academic awards. Candidates are nominated based on their extraordinary record of voluntary public service, exemplary character, superior scholastic ability and intellectual capacity that promises dividends for society.

Before coming to the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences, she received her B.A. in cultural studies from Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and an M.A. in anthropology from the University of Alberta.

Rachok remains in Ukraine today, continuing her IU research abroad. She worked on an exhibition about LGBTQ soldiers who volunteered to join the army to defend Ukraine. She shot the first 10 stories in the summer and fall, telling the story of LGBTQ+ Ukrainian military service members through photos. The exhibitions took place in November and January in Washington, D.C.

Rachok said the war on Ukraine has changed a lot of people’s outlook on life. She said she thinks she has become more callous, even though many people, including herself, may pretend they haven’t changed.

“I am more vengeful now because I cannot just wait and see people I know being killed, places that I have been to be destroyed, and just go about my life as if nothing has happened,” Rachok said.

Her volunteer work continues, but she has had to focus more on her academics, which has been challenging.

“It helped that I didn’t have to take classes but I was doing my research here, so I was responsible for making my own schedule, etc,” she said.

“Some occasional things pop up here and there. You cannot leave it behind you 100% because all life is like that now, but I am now more focused on my research, although I do still volunteer from time to time,” she said.

The decision about when to come back to Indiana will not be easy. Many factors are at play, including having to leave her partner in Ukraine because men are forbidden to travel.

“Well, I’ll have to come back at a certain point because I still have obligations with the university,” Rachok said. “I still have some obligations to finish my dissertation. I also think that staying is a solidarity gesture, and all this is a little bit out of tenderness.”


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