‘The war has taught me not to make plans’

Ukrainian economist Dr Iryna Chernysh has found a job at Bern University of Applied Sciences (BFH) and a safe place for herself and her 12-year-old daughter to live: the story of a life-changing email and a researcher who wants to be ‘useful’ in Bern and is already working on the reconstruction of her country.

Iryna Chernysh
In Switzerland, Iryna Chernysh works at the Centre for Innovation and Digitalisation (ZID) at Bernapark in Stettlen. Image: supplied

She was, yet again, sitting in the air-raid shelter with her daughter when the email arrived. Living in Poltava in central Ukraine, around 130 kilometres from Kharkiv, Iryna Chernysh and her 12-year-old daughter Sophia had to take shelter several times a day in the weeks after the start of the war. Her daughter, Iryna Chernysh recounts, had become increasingly frightened and nervous and suffered from panic attacks. It was in these desperate circumstances that she received the email from Professor Sebastian Gurtner, head of the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at BFH Business School, asking whether she would like to come to Bern to continue her academic work at BFH? She was being offered a lifeline. Yet it was an extremely emotional decision, as the 40-year-old recalls. ‘My parents don’t want to leave their homeland. My ex-husband, my daughter’s father, is defending Ukraine, although he’s not really a soldier. Leaving all that behind was, of course, very difficult.’ But as a mother, her prime instinct was to bring her child to safety – and as an economist, she was eager to continue her work. So she accepted the offer. 

Raising money for zoo animals

They travelled by bus to Warsaw and flew from there to Zurich, where Sebastian Gurtner met them. That was at the end of March. Now Iryna Chernysh is sitting in her new office at the Centre for Innovation and Digitalisation (ZID) at Bernapark in Stettlen. She and her daughter have also moved into an apartment on the site of the former cardboard factory in Deisswil. 

They have found peace of mind here. To some degree at least. Daughter Sophia is attending school in Stettlen: two days a week with the regular class and three days with other Ukrainian children. She is also able to spend the odd hour or so taking part in online lessons at her school in Poltava. She is integrating well, her mother reports, and has already made Swiss friends. The children recently held a bake sale and raised around CHF 300 for zoo animals in war-torn Kharkiv. ‘My daughter can already make herself understood pretty well. It’s handy that she chose German as a second foreign language at school back home,’ Iryna Chernysh explains. Her own German is a bit rusty, she adds with a smile, which is why she still prefers English at the moment. ‘But I’m working on my German.’

Recognised expert in tourism research

Iryna Chernysh is a renowned economist with international connections. She studied business and economics, focusing in her dissertation and research on aspects of entrepreneurship and tourism. She was particularly drawn to the question of how the state can help build regional tourism structures. ‘There is huge potential for tourism in Ukraine that has not yet been adequately explored.’ She also mentors start-up companies and ran one in the tourism sector herself after completing her studies. She is Director of the Institute of Finance, Economics and Management at the National University in Poltava. Following the outbreak of war, a lot of her time was spent helping academics who had fled war-torn cities in the east of the country and were looking to continue their research work in Poltava. ‘At the moment, it’s also very important to me to support businesses in my homeland so that they can continue to operate to some degree.’ She also points out the importance of looking ahead and starting to raise funds to rebuild the country.

‘BFH has done so much for us’

The economist is enormously grateful to those at BFH who have enabled her to continue to pursue these projects here in Bern, along with a fellow Ukrainian researcher. But her gratitude extends beyond this. ‘They took care of everything: the residence permits, the work permit, somewhere to live. They’ve made us feel very welcome here. You can’t take that for granted.’ Iryna Chernysh explains that she quickly felt at home at the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship too. She plans to ‘be useful’ here, as she puts it, and to collaborate on a four-year project, led by Professor Pascal Dey, which is examining the impact of social enterprise-led crowdfunding campaigns. Among other things, the researchers are looking at the question of how the impact can be affected by visual and verbal communication or persuasion strategies. The Ukrainian researcher is confident she will be able to contribute in particular to the qualitative and quantitative data analysis.

Iryna Chernysh is focusing on life and work here in Switzerland. But her homeland is constantly in her thoughts. She has daily phone calls with her parents and regularly speaks with her ex-husband, although he can never disclose where he is, for strategic reasons. 

How does she see her future? Does she dream of returning to her country? ‘The war has taught me not to make plans,’ she replies. ‘But one thing is certain: I want to help my country. I can do that here in Switzerland just as well as I could at home in Ukraine.’

National University in Poltava
Her workplace until recently: Iryna Chernysh is Director of the Institute of Finance, Economics and Management at the National University in Poltava. Image: supplied

‘Humanitarianism and academic exchange’

At present, 15 researchers from Ukraine are working in six different departments at BFH. Their stay has initially been guaranteed for a year. Twelve of the visiting researchers are being funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and three by BFH itself. Different paths brought the researchers to Bern. Professor Corina Caduff, Vice-President Research at BFH, applied to SNSF on behalf of Iryna Chernysh under the international Scholars at Risk programme, which supports displaced academics. ‘In taking in the researchers, we were motivated primarily by humanitarian concerns,’ states Corina Caduff. ‘But academic exchange is very important to us too. That’s why we need to be sure that all of the visiting scholars from Ukraine are a good fit for the selected projects.’