NORTH SMITHFIELD – When Jay Rumas of North Smithfield began his Fulbright fellowship in Slovakia last September, he couldn’t have predicted that his research would include bearing witness to the largest European conflict since World War II.
Rumas says he intends to stay in Slovakia for the remainder of his nine-month program, which will be over at the end of June, if not longer.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, which began on Feb. 24, had displaced nearly 2 million Ukrainian refugees as of this week. As Russia moves toward the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, fear of bloodshed and international repercussions are spreading all over Europe. Rumas, though, said he feels generally safe in Slovakia.
“My feelings are changing about the conflict every day. I’m a bit concerned. Not very scared or panicking, but stressed,” he told The Breeze on March 5.
Rumas was born and raised in North Smithfield and graduated from the University of Rhode Island this past June. His immediate postgraduate plans led him into a Fulbright research fellowship in Slovakia, with the aim of studying a small ethnic group (accounting for fewer than 1 percent of Slovaks) in the area known as Rusyns.
The Rusyn population is scattered across Slovakia, Poland, and Ukraine. Internationally, Rusyns are considered a sub-group of the Ukrainian people, but tend to self-identify as their own ethnic group apart from any particular nation, according to Rumas.
He originally planned on his research being data-driven and focused on political populism and nationalism within the Rusyns of Slovakia. In a news release from the University of Rhode Island, Rumas said that he’s interested in “how they vote, how they view the European Union, and how they view Russia.”
Shortly after Rumas arrived, he realized that his research would become something more ethnographic – that is, qualitative research based around stories and people – rather than solely relying on numerical data.
The impact of Russia’s war on Ukraine has even further shifted his research, according to Rumas, who recognizes the importance of documenting history in the making.
“It will be very interesting to see how this 1 percent view the conflict, especially in reaction to the sentiment that Putin says Ukrainians are Russian,” Rumas explained. He told The Breeze that though he has a team of Fulbright staff behind his program, he’s kind of on his own in the city, apart from his suite mate from Brazil.
“I’m lucky to be behind a NATO border, but it’s always in the back of my mind that if Ukraine collapses, the situation could be much more serious. But make no mistake, I’m much safer here (than Ukraine),” Rumas said, stating that he has no intention of leaving his program before the time is up. Rumas is currently in Prêsov, approximately 400 miles from Ukraine. For perspective, that’s a comparable distance if one were to drive from the Rhode Island Statehouse in Providence to the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C.
According to the URI release, Rumas emphasized the responsibility Americans have to be educated on international topics.
“I think the events we’re seeing now show just how important it is to have people who know what they’re doing in charge, to understand how systems work, and to know how to make them work better—systems like international security arrangements, like nuclear deterrence—which, obviously, is very scary. It’s so important that the average American knows how important this is, how much work is needed to avoid situations like this,” Rumas said.
“If this region descends further into war and instability, our world will change. In addition to the obvious tragedies that would occur and unthinkable risks to humankind itself, millions will be uprooted from their homes. In the United States, people won’t be able to go to Europe or import things from this region because of the potential closure of borders, sanctions, militarization, and threat of violence. We’re not going to be able to have this kind of interconnected world that, unfortunately, we take so much for granted. That’s something at stake here.”