Sasha Zabelski’s parents fled Ukraine months before she was born. Now she rediscovers a connection to her home country through political activism and outreach on the conflict.
Ukrainian Immigrants Begin New Life in U.S.
Before she was born, Sasha Zabelski’s parents fled to New York City from Kiev. It had been two years since the fall of the Soviet Union, and pressures of economic instability, government corruption and unsafe living conditions were mounting.
She says what followed is the typical story of Eastern European immigrants landing in New York City. Russian was her first language, and she didn’t learn English until she was five.
As she grew older, she felt the pressure and the need to assimilate into American culture.
“This is one of the many challenges children of migrants face,” she said. “Growing up with Ukrainian and American culture at home, I had to balance both. It was hard feeling like I fit into either one of the cultures very neatly.”
Her family settled out west, where she earned a bachelor’s in psychology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She then earned her master’s degree in psychology at the University of Southampton, a port city in southern England.
When she returned to Colorado, she worked for two years in community mental health as a crisis therapist, working with individuals who needed support.
Speaking Out on the Current Conflict
Now she is a public health sciences doctoral student here at UNC Charlotte and led a team from the Global Alliance for Behavioral Health and Social Justice in crafting a position statement on Ukraine.
Public health professor and Irwin Belk Distinguished Scholar of Health Research Robert Cramer said, “Sasha’s efforts with the Global Alliance exemplify living the mission of public health sciences. The position statement is science-based and draws on lived experience to educate the public on an event of crucial international importance.”
The Global Alliance is an interdisciplinary nonprofit association engaged in the research and practice of human development by specifically looking at the intersection of social justice issues and behavioral and mental health.
The position statement opens with a background of the conflict, which is a humanitarian crisis on the largest scale. It is Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II, with more than 5 million Ukrainians fleeing the country and an additional 7 million displaced.
It stands in solidarity with individuals and families suffering forced migration and displacement and condemns the violence, including war crimes and humanitarian injustice and addresses issues such as mental health and racism on an international scale.
It calls for comprehensive and multilevel mental health services that are based in the community with an emphasis on those that can be accessed remotely:
Technology can be harnessed long-term to connect displaced Ukrainians with family members who may have fled to different locations within and outside the country. Enabling this social support by using technology, especially to connect separated families, is vital towards contributing to positive mental health effects for Ukrainian refugees after they resettle or return.
“Culturally informed mental health services for Ukrainian refugees would address distress while also fostering resilience by helping Ukrainian refugees find ways to connect to their identity and community while settling in their new communities,” the statement added.
“Most importantly, Sasha, and the position statement in particular, are shining a light on lesser publicized health matters within the Ukrainian crisis,” said Cramer, “namely the need to ensure critical and often-neglected mental health services for those displaced and traumatized by Russia’s war.”
In crafting the statement, Zabelski said she was also looking beyond individual mental health services.
“I was also reaching for a broader agenda of global solidarity and community. There are things the global community can do over and above meeting basic human needs that encourage Ukrainians to continue to be resilient,” she said.
Reconnecting with Cultural Heritage
What drew Zabelski to public health and her area of research was her time working as a crisis therapist, where she saw a lot of issues within the system itself. As only one person, she believed she needed to leverage her time by taking up larger issues.
Sasha is very active with the Global Alliance, as well as other policy and community mental health-focused nonprofits, but she also believes the two disciplines she has spent her career studying—psychology and public health—can work better together.
“They are both important in their own right,” she said. “We need to tackle big problems and care for, and learn from, the individual.”
Writing the statement has given Zabelski the opportunity to connect to her culture in a deeper way and understand how she is tied to all the different cultural factors she didn’t learn growing up in the U.S.
She remembers a time as a young girl when she tried to push away her culture in favor of becoming more American. But as her career and education progressed, she rekindled a desire to connect with Ukrainian culture and better understand that part of herself.
“This was important to me in terms of embracing my culture and advocating for a country that is often forgotten about on the world stage,” she said.
Cramer says Sasha’s activism with the Global Alliance, as well as her active role with other mental health and therapy-focused nonprofits, exemplifies and emboldens UNC Charlotte's Strategic Plan.
“Ukraine has already dealt with so much before this invasion, and it’s important to highlight what they’re going through historically and at present,” said Zabelski.
“Making the statement was a way to keep talking about it and remind people it's an important issue, so that they don’t forget about the Ukrainians and continue to do everything in their power to help them, while continuing to understand and value their cultural impact in the world.”