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Nine months into the conflict, those who have stayed despite blackouts and missile strikes are losing their patience with people who chose to leave

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Sasha Pyrozhkov, Anna Chepynoha, Kateryna Bosiachenko and Diana Pozdniakova share a house in Lviv, Ukraine. They have been thinking recently about Ukrainians who have gone overseas.Photography by Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

Ukrainians have won admiration around the world for their stoicism and defiance in the face of Russian aggression. But as the war drags into its ninth month, something else has emerged here: a hardening toward those who have left the country and may never return.

Ask almost any Ukrainian and they’ll know someone who has gone abroad since the war began in February. Most sympathize with those who sought safety for their children or had no other choice.

But there’s also a sense of resignation, and in some cases anger, that many young people simply won’t return, leaving the country with a massive loss of talent just when it’s needed most.

Dayana Euchuk’s best friend is now studying in Sweden. He left just before the start of the war, when young men were still allowed to leave the country.

“I think he won’t come back, and that’s not really cool,” said Ms. Euchuk, an 18-year-old university student in Kyiv. “It bothers me that a lot of good people just leave because they don’t feel safe here. They can’t rebuild something.”

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Sasha Pyrozhkov, middle, says some Ukrainians have left the country for 'selfish' reasons.

It’s not hard to find similar resentment among young Ukrainians who feel they are enduring blackouts, air-raid sirens and the constant threat of Russian missile strikes while some of their friends are living abroad in relative calm and enjoying more opportunities.

“I know some people that decided to leave and go to other countries. The reason why they do that is because they just want to live a better life and to create a future, a career,” said Sasha Pyrozhkov, a 19-year-old in Lviv who is working and pursuing a degree in cultural studies. “I just don’t understand these people.”

Mr. Pyrozhkov is careful to note that he has friends who have gone to study in Canada and other countries and plan to come back and put their knowledge to use in Ukraine. He respects that. It’s the others, the ones who have gone away purely out of self-interest, that he can’t comprehend.

“It is selfish,” he said. “But I don’t give it a negative connotation because it’s their life. I just don’t understand them.”

He spends his free time raising money for the war effort and is certain that young people have a bright future in Ukraine. “There are a lot of opportunities because there are a lot of problems, and we just have to find the solutions for them,” he said. “That’s the thing that gives me this motivation to stay here and to change something.”

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Oleksandr Pavenskyi, Bogdan Fursin and Oleksandr Voskob get together in Kyiv for one last time before two of them ship out with the military.

Others can barely suppress their rage when it comes to the young men who have found a way out of the country in order to avoid fighting. Ukraine has banned most men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving, but there are plenty of stories of draft-age men paying bribes to cross the border.

Oleksandr Voskob and his friends Oleksandr Pavenskyi and Bogdan Fursin nodded vigorously when asked if they knew men who had bribed their way out.

The three 20-year-olds were enjoying a final get-together in Kyiv this week before Mr. Voskob and Mr. Fursin, who were recently called up, joined their military units.

“They are rubbish, pigs,” Mr. Voskob said of the draft dodgers. “Cowards,” Mr. Fursin added. “They should at least try.”

The two were equally scathing about men who had relocated to western Ukraine, far away from the front line.

“They are afraid,” Mr. Voskob said. “People who stay are the strongest people.”

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A typical weekend in Kyiv: Patrons dine at Mimosa pizzeria despite a Saturday night blackout, people take a Sunday-morning walk in the city centre, cyclists look out at the Dnipro River just hours before another Russian missile strike on the city.

No one can say for sure how many of the more than seven million Ukrainian refugees living abroad will stay away. Many have started to return, but there’s little doubt Ukraine will lose some of its best and brightest.

The prospect of a mass brain drain “is really worrying me a lot. It’s a really huge problem,” said Serhii Horbachov, the country’s educational ombudsman, in a recent interview in Kyiv. “Unfortunately Ukraine doesn’t have a system to support parents and kids to come back.”

Mr. Horbachov estimated that almost half of Ukraine’s four million school-aged children are living abroad. Thousands of teachers and professors have also dropped out of the profession, either by moving away or joining the military.

Education authorities have been encouraging students living in foreign countries to tap into Ukrainian schoolwork online, and officials have called on countries hosting refugees to help them remain connected to their homeland’s history, culture and language. But Mr. Horbachov acknowledged that it’s a lot to ask a refugee student enrolled in a school or university in another country to set aside time for Ukrainian studies.

Kate Dubyna, 24, has been a private tutor in Vinnytsia for four years and still laments the departure of two bright students who left with their parents shortly after the war started. “They went to Portugal, and their family decided that they would stay there,” she said recently in Kyiv. “And that’s really sad just because they are so clever and I would like them to be here and work for Ukraine.”

Ms. Dubyna said some people she knows have simply used the war as a chance to move away. “Maybe some of them, they really wanted to study abroad before. Now the war has started and that’s really terrible, but maybe they just saw this opportunity to go abroad,” she said.

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In Lviv, young people enjoy a warm afternoon next to a monument covered to protect it from damage in the conflict with Russia.

For some, the chance to study at a top foreign school was hard to pass up.

Dasha, a 16-year-old high-school student who didn’t want to give her last name because her father is in the military, returned to Kyiv from London this summer for a short visit. She’d left the city with her mother when the war started and is now starting A levels in Britain, roughly the equivalent of Grades 11 and 12 in Canada. “Honestly I think that I will go to university somewhere else,” she said. “I know for 100 per cent that I will visit Kyiv a lot of times through my life. I’m not sure that I will live here.”

For others like Anna Chepynoha, a 20-year-old Ukrainian history student in Lviv, it has been hard to convince acquaintances to take the war seriously and stay committed to the country.

She’s from Odesa’s Russian-speaking population and knows many Odesans who don’t appreciate the threat to Ukraine. “There are a lot people who still don’t understand what this war is about,” she said. “They are still listening to Russian music, still speaking Russian. There are a lot of them who went abroad, and I think they don’t return. To be honest I don’t really want them to.”

Ms. Chepynoha shares a house with several students, and during a recent gathering they swapped stories about people they know who have left. “I don’t think about someone who stays away and is just waiting when everything will get better and maybe Russia and Ukraine will be friends again,” said Diana Pozdniakova, a 20-year-old philosophy student. “I just don’t mention these people in my life.”

She too believes that young Ukrainians who stayed will be at the forefront of rebuilding the country after the war. “To be a new generation on this destroyed ground, that’s maybe heroic and maybe sometimes it will be very difficult. But it’s the idea that I want to work on,” she said.

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'There are a lot people who still don’t understand what this war is about,' says Anna Chepynoha, middle.

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