STAMFORD — Sixteen-year-old Kristina Yosypiv, a sophomore in high school, said it’s hard to focus on classes right now.
“I sit on my phone and I look at the updates and I’m constantly worrying,” she said. “If my grandma doesn’t respond, I get really worried.”
Yosypiv is one of a number of young second-generation Ukrainians who live in Stamford. On Saturday mornings, 165 of them ranging from kindergarten through 11th grade gather at the School of Ukrainian Studies at St. Basil’s Catholic Church.
While the rest of the state — and the country — is donning yellow and blue and shouting “Slava Ukraini” (Glory to Ukraine) for the first time, schools like this have always centered around the preservation of Ukrainian culture, history, traditions and language.
In the last few weeks, it’s also become a place where these students can gather and talk about their concerns and frustrations with the ongoing war.
One student, 15-year-old Diana Senkivsyy, whose family is from the Western city of Ternopil, said she had family members hiding in bunkers, packed and ready to go if the situation worsens. Another, 16-year-old Kat Melnyk, whose family is from the Western city of Ivano-Frankivsk, said her relatives were forced to flee — first to Hungary now to Belgium. Emily Pekar, 15, said that her relatives, like Kristina’s grandmother, wanted to stay put.
“That’s where my dad grew up and his siblings grew up, so they don’t want to leave,” said Pekar, whose family is also from Ternopil.
Kristina’s mother, Ulyana Yosypiv, the principal of the school, said that the students — even the little ones — are well aware of the Russian invasion into Ukraine.
“[The] kids know the history well,” she said. “They usually don’t ask us why.”
Yosypiv said that she’s also noticed a change recently in the students. Normally, she said, she has to fight with the children and teenagers to get them to switch from English to Ukrainian. Since the war began, they have done it voluntarily.
“We kind of understand why we should talk in Ukrainian more now and why English shouldn’t really be part of this school at the moment,” added Kristina.
Ulyana Yosypiv said that she is in constant communication with her mother — Kristina’s grandmother — who is in Ivano-Frankivsk. She has an app on her phone that notifies her whenever sirens go off near where her mother is. Since most of the bombing happens overnight, Yosypiv said, she stays up until 1 or 2 a.m. — early morning in Ukraine — to ask her mother how the night went.
“I asked her to come here because she has a visa,” said Yosypiv. “She was like, how [can] I leave my land? … She was like ‘Spring [is] coming. I need to plant my vegetables in my garden. I’m not going.’”
“This didn’t start last week”
For the Ukrainian students who have grown up learning about the history of their nation, the lack of understanding from people in American high schools is frustrating. Some say that their peers are making jokes — calling the conflict “World War III.”
Max Banaryk, a high school sophomore whose family is from the southwestern city of Chernivtsi, said he felt sad when he saw some of the memes about Ukraine on the internet.
“Because my grandparents are there — it makes me very emotional,” said Banaryk.
Elizabeth Lysak, whose family is from Ternopil, echoed Banaryk.
“The jokes that people make just make me so aggravated because they’re joking about something that is making people lose their lives,” said Lysak, who is 15. “And it’s just like, educate yourself before you even talk about the topic.”
Sixteen-year-old Victoria Punyeko said that when she made posters and hung them at school, some people laughed at them or told her that they wouldn’t make any difference.
“We feel guilty because we’re so privileged in America while our families are in Ukraine, struggling. But the most we could do is spread awareness, protest against it, and try to send help … but some people don’t understand that’s all we can do,” said Punyeko whose relatives are in Lviv, a city close to the Polish border.
The students say they wish that people in the US were more aware of Ukraine’s past. The country’s unique traditions and culture, they say, go back hundreds and hundreds of years.
“People in school should know our history, about how this led Russia to attack us, like the history behind it and why they did,” said Melnyk.
Not knowing the events that led up to this invasion, they said, distorts how people understand what’s happening right now.
“They just think that a bomb landed on Ukraine and it started like last week. This didn’t start last week” said Lysak.
Sixteen-year-old Denys Dmytriv whose family is also from Ternopil said that before the invasion many of his peers assumed that Ukraine was a part of Russia.
“Every time I said I was Ukrainian, everyone was just like, you’re Russian, basically,” said Dmytriv.
The students said they wished American schools taught about events like the Holodomor, a famine that killed 10 million Ukranians during the 1930s. The famine was engineered by Joseph Stalin, who exported so much grain from Ukrainian fields that it left the Ukrainian population without sustenance. They said that people also don’t realize that many Ukrainians lost their lives in the Holocaust.
Kristina said her history teacher, who knows that she is Ukrainian, is making an effort to teach about the war, urging her classmates to keep up on the news and sending them news updates, which Kristina said she appreciates.
She and her classmates are also trying to educate the people around them and to speak out in any way they can. They have spent hours driving to participate in protests. Kristina wrote an essay for school about Ukraine — why the country deserved the support of the West, its patriotism and how its people do not deserve to suffer through this war.
“We’re a sovereign nation. We have our own independence. We deserve to be free. We deserve to peacefully live in our land and not be invaded every hundred years,” she said.
“Their little fight”
In an upstairs classroom at the school, about 20 six- and seven-year-olds take turns explaining what they know about the war.
“Russia is attacking Ukraine,” one said. “And it’s very painful to Ukraine.”
“They hide in the basement so they cannot get killed,” another added.
Alina Nebylovych, their teacher, said that last week she had to figure out the best way to talk with the children about what was happening.
“I didn’t want to start with the war, but we all were really stressed,” she said. “Their parents all came from Ukraine recently, so they’re deeply rooted. Most of their grandparents live in Ukraine and they have ties. They’d go and visit Ukraine every summer.”
Normally, the children come to the school and read books in Ukrainian. They pray and they sing songs. Nebylovych said she pretends to her students that she doesn’t speak English, so they have no choice but to speak in Ukrainian.
She said the parents tell her that their children want to come to Ukrainian school more than they want to go to normal school.
“You feel the community spirit here,” she said.
Nebylovych said that some of the fears she’s heard from the little ones about their families in the Ukraine since the war began are heartbreaking.
She tries to be positive. She encourages the children to pray if they are worried. Taped to the chalkboard in the classroom were pictures that the children had drawn as part of a homework assignment — “My Ukrainian Family.”
The pictures – of families holding Ukrainian flags or standing amid a yellow-and-blue backdrop — are positioned around a large sign at the front of the room that reads “STAND WITH UKRAINE” and features each student’s hand print.
For Nebylovych, teaching at the Ukrainian school is another way of supporting the country.
“For us, it’s important to be doing something, not just sitting at home worrying,” said Nebylovych.
She said she encourages the students to keep working hard and doing all the things they should be doing.
“I just try to teach them, do your job. Try to do your homework. Try to be more independent. Here in Ukrainian school, try to speak [the] Ukrainian language … that’s their little fight here,” she said.
“Protect the Skies”
In the eyes of the older students, there’s one major action the international community could take that they believe would help: “protect the skies.”
“If they closed the sky, I feel like it wouldn’t be a war — we would win it,” said Melnyk.
“We actually know what we’re fighting for,” added Lysak.
Ulyana Yosypiv said she understood the risks of imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Despite requests from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, NATO has so far refused to create such a zone, saying that it fears that doing so would widen the war.
“Of course, everybody explained to us that it’s impossible, but we’re still asking,” she said.
She added that the country still needs a great deal of humanitarian aid, and that soldiers are in need of ammunition. She said there need to be humanitarian corridors so that aid can reach the Ukrainian people and safe corridors for refugees to escape from the fighting.
Yosypiv said she would also like to see a program where children in the Ukraine could come over to the United States and get away from the war, even temporarily, for a few weeks, as a kind of vacation.
When the older students are asked what Ukrainian traditions they most value, the answers spill out. Dance. The sculptures of historical figures that are around the cities in the Ukraine. Food. Most importantly, they say, is the warmth and hospitality of the Ukrainian people.
“Dance is very important to me. So I just think about how it … can’t just go away. We still have a culture. We still have history … it can’t just disappear,” said Pekar.
Punyeko said she values the closeness of the local Ukrainian community.
“Here, we have a Ukrainian school. We have Ukrainian organizations and we have them in different areas. We all get together in one place, like at least once a year, if not multiple times” said Punyeko. “And we all just support each other — each other’s accomplishments and stuff. So I feel like that’s very important … especially right now.”
Punyeko said this became particularly evident as the community joined rallies and voiced their opposition to the war in the last few weeks. Some of her friends from other nationalities, she said, have also thrown their support behind the Ukrainians — recognizing that what is happening along the Black Sea affects them all.
“Even my [Polish] friends will go up to me and start talking about these situations and talking about how they’re scared for us, and that they’re scared for themselves…” said Punyeko. “The people that understand the pain get it. And then they try to support us too.”