TAMPA, Fla. — Thousands of USF students will walk across the stage this week to get their diplomas, but one soon-to-be graduate says this graduation will feel more meaningful with his mother, Natalia, in attendance.
Danylo Solomentsev, from Ukraine, said he feared for his mother's safety when Russia launched its war on Ukraine. Like millions of others, his mother fled the country and was able to seek refuge in Slovakia.
"Your heart just drops," he said. "All of us started to call families and everybody."
More than 14 million people remain forcibly displaced from their homes in Ukraine, according to the United Nations. That includes 6.5 million internally displaced within the country and 7.8 million remaining recorded across Europe.
Solomentsev said he had his mother install an app so he could track her movement as she crossed the border from Kiev. He recalled feeling fearful about the possibility of rockets hitting the area.
He said he experiences survivor's guilt having to watch people his age fight on top of the hurdles his mother has overcome. However, he's made it his mission to spread awareness on the war's impact.
Since the war began, he's helped raise more than $7,000 for humanitarian relief through regular activities on campus, USF stated.
"I'm doing good over here," he said. "So I don't complain."
Danylo and Natalia Solomentsev were able to reunite once already after the war began. The two looked back on tears and relief during their first reunion.
"He's my family of course," she said.
Danylo's mother described leaving Ukraine as appearing apocalyptic. Scenes of people rushing to gas stations to the sounds of sirens.
She said she would spend months in Slovakia helping Ukrainians adjust at a volunteer center. From ensuring they have proper documentation to helping them navigate housing for instance, she said.
Despite her successful arrival in Slovakia, the family said it's important to remember not everyone has been fortunate amid the war.
There have been at least 17,181 civilian casualties recorded, according to the United Nations Human Rights Office, but officials believe that the number is much higher.
The future may remain uncertain but the Solomentsev family said they feel relief for now knowing they're together for a milestone achievement.
"I'm really glad that I'm able to see her. She's safe," he said. "This is extremely special to my soul."