I left Kyiv last Monday for a two-week trip to Europe and maybe beyond. It took twenty hours to reach Zürich, where I attended the Mapping Ukraine research symposium sponsored by the Geography department at Eigenössische Technische Hochenschule Zürich, a university more commonly known as ETH.

A few months ago our group, The Peace Coalition, welcomed a new partner: Mapping Ukraine. Mapping Ukraine is creating a 4-dimensional digital map of the destruction of buildings and infrastructure across Ukraine. Think of Google street view with 3D models showing the damage with the date it occurred, hence the 4D. Mapping Ukraine is all about collaboration so they invited us to explain our pilot project to rebuild two Ukrainian villages in front of an audience of interested parties who may wish to contribute. 

Surprisingly, I found myself surrounded by Ukrainians in Zurich – exiled academics who found a new home at ETH in Switzerland.

New place like home

Ukraine and Switzerland are very different places. Ukraine is one of the most affordable European countries to visit, where Switzerland is one of the most expensive. For example, a friend of mine in Geneva spends 350 Swiss francs for an opera ticket. That’s more than most people pay in monthly rent in Kyiv! Obviously, the most daunting task confronting an academic in exile is how to earn enough money to survive. Thankfully, for the Ukrainians I met, the Swiss government and the ETH Foundation were there to help.

Most of the universities in Ukraine closed when Russia invaded so academics and researchers, especially near the front line in Kharkiv and Dnipro, were forced to seek safer environments. The Swiss government and universities stepped up to provide funding for Ukrainian PhD candidates to continue their research. These were the folks I was lucky to meet at ETH Zürich.

It’s important to note that while many Ukrainian academics are now doing research in Switzerland, they’re continuing Ukrainian-focused research. One is studying the Ukrainian power grid with the goal of modernizing and introducing new technologies like hydrogen power generation. Others are focusing on agriculture technology. Another is documenting and creating 3D scans of Bauhaus and modernist buildings in the western Ukrainian cities Lviv and Ternopil. ETH Zürich is not draining brains from Ukraine for the betterment of Switzerland. They’re providing paid positions for Ukrainian academics to help rebuild Ukraine.

Saving Ukraine, Swiss style

As recently reported by Reuters, Switzerland is close to breaking with centuries of tradition as a neutral state, as a pro-Ukraine shift in the public and political mood puts pressure on the government to end a ban on exports of Swiss weapons to war zones.

However, their support for exiled academics and researchers has been exemplary. Many lost their homes and jobs when the war began, and replacing such a prominent career requires a higher-educational culture and institutional support. Students need professors and professors need researchers. All can be found on any Swiss university campus.

The Ukrainian academic exiles I met last week are thrilled to have support from the Swiss government and ETH, but it was bittersweet because most of them would much rather be home in Ukraine. Hopefully The Peace Coalition can provide a middle ground until the war is over by offering these Ukrainians & Swiss the opportunity to transform their theories into practice as we rebuild the two towns. Indeed, it takes a village to raise a village. Slava Ukraini! Slava Switzerland!