It’s been hard for some of the students at St. George Academy to concentrate on their studies this week. Many of them are consumed with worry for family members who live in Ukraine.
"From the Wednesday evening night when I found out, I haven't slept for a few days after that, and I've been on a call with my family most of the time. And checking the news like every five minutes and I'm still doing that till right now,” said Sophia Klyuba, a senior at the school.
Thirty-seven percent of the Catholic school's population is of Ukrainian heritage and some, like Sophia, lived most of their lives in Ukraine and have immediate family there.
What You Need To Know
- 37% of students at Saint George Academy, a Catholic school in the East Village, have Ukrainian heritage
- Many have immediate family in the country -- who are now hiding in bomb shelters, or taking up arms against invading Russian forces
- It's a reminder of how close to home the faraway bloodshed is for many New Yorkers
“You see students break out in tears and start crying in the middle of a class, and all we can do is hug them — and what do you say to that?” Principal Andrew Stasiw asked. “Our student services director, our guidance counselor is here. She's working with students if they need to talk. But right now, most people are afraid to talk. They don't want to think about the worst. And we're hoping that the worst doesn't happen.”
The worst is what Sophia feared when the fighting began and the airport in the city of Ivano-Frankivsk was bombed.
“I was terrified, very scared, because especially my aunt and uncle, they live very close to the airport. And it was like 5 a.m. in Ukraine and everybody was still sleeping. No one knew about the start of war except for me,” she said, tears in her eyes. “And I was just terrified and terrified that I won't be able to see my family’s faces again.”
She was able to connect with them a short time later.
“They woke up and I called them and I was very relieved to see them,” she said.
But for her and others, the relief is short-lived as attacks on the country continue. Senior Kirill Budagovskiy's brother is a soldier fighting in the city of Sumy.
"The exact words that he said to me, word for word: he said it's either going to end in Ukraine or it's going to trigger a world war,” Kirill said.
His eight-year-old sister, who is also in Ukraine, told Kirill about bombings and shootings she had heard.
“I hear here, it’s like so mature, like, too mature for her age, to be knowing about who's getting bombed, who's dying, hearing bombs, just telling me about hearing bombs,” he said.
Many of the school’s staff, including Stasiw also have family in Ukraine, including many who refuse to leave. He said he has family as old as 60 and as young as 12 ready to take up arms.
“We might plead with them, 'Hey, make your way to Poland.' But they say they would rather fight and die than give up what they have in Ukraine, which is a beautiful country,” Stasiw said.
It’s a reminder that while the bloodshed is more than 4,500 miles away, the emotional pain hits right here. New York City is home to the largest Ukranian population in the United States.
“These are people that are basically your neighbors if you're a New Yorker, it doesn't matter if you're, you know, not Ukrainians. You share a home with Ukrainian people,” Kirill said.
Most students at the school aren’t Ukrainian, but all the students study the language and sing it in their school choir. Many feel a deep connection to the nation, even if their family doesn’t hail from it.
“I see the news that some of their cities are bombed, it just hurts me because I would never want that to happen to me,” senior Samurai Kolwell said. “And I know that their families are scared, and I don't want to — I don't want anybody to be in that position ever again.”
Some of the students at the school are Russian and Stasiw has made sure to emphasize that the Russian people aren’t behind the invasion. At an assembly Monday, Stasiw included images of Russians protesting the war.
"Russians are against this invasion. These poor young men, 5,000 of them have already perished in this ridiculous, bloody conflict. Russians don't hate Ukrainians, Ukrainians don't hate Russians,” Stasiw said. “This is government. This is power, money and Putin's legacy. And he needs to be stopped.”
Stasiw believes it’s time for NATO to get involved, even though Ukraine is not a member, arguing if they don’t act, Putin will only push further into Europe
“If you don't deal with this problem, now, you will deal with it later,” he added. “Imagine you're being assaulted on Sixth Street and the police can help you because you don't belong to some special club.”
The fear that Putin won’t stop with them is one reason, Stasiw says, Ukrainians are fighting back so hard
“They realize that they're not only trying to save their homeland and fight tyranny, they know that they're protecting Europe," he said. "Putin is not planning to stop at Ukraine's borders."