‘It’s a personal cause for us’ – McMaster linguistics research centre creates program for displaced scholars

Olga, a woman with long brown hair, wearing a turtleneck sweater outdoors on campus.

Olga Dvorova, who was doing her PhD in Ukraine on the Crimean Tatar language, arrived at McMaster this spring, the first of four Ukrainian scholars who came here with the support of the Centre for Advanced Research in Experimental and Applied Linguistics' visiting researcher program. She's now a research assistant in linguistics professor Victor Kuperman's lab, and also a master's student in the Gender and Social Justice program. (Photo by Georgia Kirkos/McMaster University)

Ukrainian linguistics doctoral student Olga Dvorova is an expert on Crimean Tatar, an indigenous language of Crimea. At the end of February, soon after Russia invaded Ukraine, Dvorova learned about an opportunity for visiting researchers at McMaster’s Centre for Advanced Research in Experimental and Applied Linguistics, or ARiEAL. She contacted McMaster linguistics professor Victor Kuperman to learn more, then joined the exodus from Kyiv to Poland, where her aunt lives.

About six weeks later, Dvorova arrived in Canada, the first visiting researcher to participate in a pilot program created by ARiEAL director and linguistics professor Ivona Kučerová and the centre’s former manager, Chia-Yu Lin.

The original plan had been to start a summer pilot project to bring in scholars from several African and Central- and South American countries for a few months.

circular headshot of Ivona Kucerova
Ivona Kučerová

“We wanted to create a two-way scholarly environment in the summer months, when there is more space and time, where people can learn from our techniques and we could learn from them,” Kučerová explains.

“When the war in Ukraine started, we thought it would be straightforward to extend the program to Ukraine and other war-zone countries to bring in displaced scholars and provide a dignified environment for people who can’t continue their research, and to help them find other research projects in future.”

Because the international visiting scholar pilot was already in motion, Kuperman and Kučerová were able to mobilize quickly and help Dvorova get to Canada in a relatively short time frame.

Arriving in Canada

When Dvorova arrived in Canada on April 9, it felt unreal, she says. “I couldn’t believe I was really here.”

Headshot of Victor Kuperman
Victor Kuperman

From the start, fellow researchers and grad students in Kuperman’s lab welcomed her into their tight-knit group, showing her around Hamilton and helping her settle in. It was a relief to be able to get together with friends, Dvorova says.

Since then, Dvorova has started a graduate program in Gender and Social Justice at McMaster. She’s also a research assistant in Kuperman’s Reading Lab, working on a SSHRC-funded project exploring the impact of the pandemic on reading skills in higher education.

When she first arrived, Dvorova stayed with Kuperman’s family for a few weeks, then moved into Mary Keyes residence at McMaster. Now she shares a house with two other ARiEAL visitors from Ukraine, and is keen to apply her skills and experiences in community or governmental organizations that facilitate the integration of newcomers.

Expanding the program

ARiEAL has since welcomed three other Ukrainian scholars— Maiia Bulakh, a linguistics lecturer from Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv; Alina Dochu, an indigenous languages and linguistics research fellow from Potebnia Institute of Linguistics of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine; and Mariia Hryntus, a computational linguistics master’s student from Lviv Polytechnic National University.

To help expand the program, Kuperman and Kučerová leveraged other funding opportunities at McMaster and beyond.

Dvorova received additional support from McMaster’s Student at Risk Bursary (SARB). The most recent visiting scholars at the master’s and postdoctoral level received support from the SSHRC Special Response Fund for Trainees (Ukraine) and the Mitacs Canada-Ukraine program.

Additional research expenses for Dochu and Bulakh’s four-month visit were reimbursed by McMaster’s Scholars at Risk Program (SARP).

‘We’ll keep pushing’

For both professors, the situation in Ukraine hit close to home: Kučerová, who is Czech, grew up under Russian occupation. Kuperman’s mother, who has Romanian and Jewish roots, was born in Ukraine in 1944, as her family was fleeing Nazi occupation.

It’s important to both that their colleagues be able to continue their work. With the success of the first four scholar placements, both Kuperman and Kučerová want to help support more Ukrainian colleagues and scholars in need, perhaps by creating a summer school in the science of language.

Bringing in scholars from Ukraine and other countries would also allow McMaster to create a more diverse, globalized environment that could lead to new research collaborations, Kučerová says.

“Our research centre has resources and connections, so scholars can continue doing the work they were doing in a meaningful way,” Kučerová says.

Ukrainian universities have moved many of their classes — including linguistics — online and continue to operate, even as they’re under attack, Kuperman says. He hopes he and his colleagues at McMaster and elsewhere will be able to work with them, sharing expertise and possibly even creating virtual exchanges for data and insights.

“This is not the time to be discouraged or pessimistic,” Kuperman says. “We all have family history of refugees, imprisonment, displaced persons — it’s a personal cause for us, we’ll keep pushing. We’ll do as much as we can.”