From the bunker in Ukraine to graduating from Tel Aviv University

Kirill Derek was trapped for nearly a year in Ukraine after Russia's invasion and was forced to live in a Dnipro bunker under adverse conditions, but university faculty did not give up on him

"During the war in Ukraine, the greatest difficulty for me was writing my thesis," Kirill Derek said excitedly. "The Dnipro bunker I was living in, was dark, it was like an abandoned shelter with only a small night lamp. Internet was scarce, there was a terrible smell of sewage, and rats ran between my feet while sounds of explosions were constantly heard in the background.
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"The bunker was located near a military munitions factory, so Russian planes constantly bombed the area, and there were many air raid sirens. It was very frightening, and I didn't know if I would ever be able to return to my normal life."
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קיריל דריק בבונקר (מימין) ובקבלת התואר (משמאל)
קיריל דריק בבונקר (מימין) ובקבלת התואר (משמאל)
Kirill Derek on the left receives his master's degree and on the right in a Ukrainian bunker
(Photo: Tel Aviv University, Kirill Derek)
When Derek describes his distress at the time, it's hard to imagine that just a few months earlier, he was living in Israel and pursuing a master's degree at the School of Political Science, Government, and International Affairs at Tel Aviv University.
Kirill arrived in Israel as a lone soldier in 2017 and served in the IDF as a volunteer in a commando unit, despite having health challenges. After he was discharged, he began his studies as a graduate student at Tel Aviv University. During the semester break in February 2022, he traveled to visit his parents in Dnipro, Eastern Ukraine. During his stay, his mother fell ill and was hospitalized, which forced Kirill to extend his vacation by five days until February 25, 2022.
The day before his scheduled return flight, Russia invaded Ukraine, and Kirill, holding dual citizenship (Israeli and Ukrainian), was unable to leave the country under Ukrainian conscription rules. "Ukraine announced that everyone was being conscripted for combat, and I had no choice but to flee and take shelter in a bunker for 10 months, with my girlfriend bringing me food and basic supplies every day," he recounted.
The only positive point during that period was Kirill's daily connection with Tel Aviv University. Under the guidance of the head of the School, Prof. Hanna Lerner, the entire faculty mobilized to help Kirill Derek complete his degree. In impossible conditions, while confined in the bunker, Kirill maintained a study routine of sorts, that included four courses taught via Zoom and culminating in exams and assignments.
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קיריל מקבל את התואר השני בטקס באוניברסיטת תל אביב
קיריל מקבל את התואר השני בטקס באוניברסיטת תל אביב
Kirill Derek receives his master's degree
(Photo: Tel Aviv University)
"From the moment we realized that Kirill was hiding in Ukraine, it was crucial for us to maintain almost daily contact with him," Prof. Lerner said. "I asked the lecturers to report to us regularly if he missed any classes, and we all made an effort to provide him with all the study materials he needed before each class. It was a very challenging period, and we are very proud of Kirill for not giving up and continuing his studies, even under the bombings and sirens."
Ten months later, after four failed attempts to leave Ukraine, Kirill received a sudden phone call from Sigal Shahar, the coordinator of advanced degrees at the university, informing him that after extensive efforts, they had managed, in collaboration with the school's International Office, to arrange all the necessary documents for him to leave the borders of Ukraine and return to Israel.
Last week, at Tel Aviv University, Kirill fulfilled his dream and, in an emotional ceremony, took the stage to receive his hard-earned degree. Amidst the applause of the audience in the auditorium, Kirill expressed his gratitude and tearfully said, "My story is a message of triumph. Don't let anything stop you. With determination, technology, and good people, you can achieve anything," he said adding that his hard work was not in vain.
"When I received my degree, I felt like I had finally returned to my homeland. I feel that my homeland is Israel, not Ukraine. The people here are children of God. What I have received and the amount of assistance I have received has turned Israel into my family, he said. "I think I will always be grateful for everything Tel Aviv University has done for me. I am confident that we will meet again for a third degree."
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