On February 24th, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, marking the start of the Russia-Ukraine War. Many people were forced to flee Ukraine as their hometowns were attacked. Some came to the United States. Six such teenagers currently attend Ridgewood High School, forced to leave their homes, lives, and families behind. They needed to travel illegally, passing through numerous countries, and even got stuck at the border. After facing these dangers and making all these sacrifices, they arrived in a completely foreign country where they barely spoke the language and knew next to no people.
Leonid Krivenko, a freshman known to most as Len, is one such student. Although Len lived in Mariupol, Ukraine, his family moved to Russia to stay with relatives at the start of the war as his hometown was invaded and taken over by Russian troops. As the war escalated, they made the difficult decision to attempt to flee to the United States. On August 30th, 2022, Len arrived in the U.S. after a fifteen-hour bus ride from Russia to Estonia, an overnight stay in Latvia, and then flying out from Portugal.
Getting out of Russia was no simple task as the Russian government implemented more travel restrictions. “It was necessary to look for a not very legal bus…for leaving Russia,” says Len. After crossing the Russian border, however, travel became easier.
A challenging part of the immigration process was finding people to host Len and his family once they were in the U.S. Their family friends in the Bronx took in his parents and found someone to house Len, who made the tough decision to live apart from his parents in order to pursue a better quality education at RHS. On weekends, he stays with his parents in the Bronx and weekdays are spent in Ridgewood with family acquaintances.
“When I was coming here from Ukraine, I realized that, although it’s difficult, it’s better for it to be difficult than to live like it is in Ukraine right now,” said Len. He is adapting quickly to his new life however, and is currently taking ESL classes along with the other Ukrainian refugees at RHS.
Len explained that the most significant difference between the U.S. and Ukrainian schools is the Ukrainian schools’ rigid nature. In Ukrainian schools, each student had to take sixteen different courses, and attend eight classes per day. Although Ukrainian students are taught an abundance of information, they are not able to choose their classes and pursue their interests.
George Miahkov, another Ukrainian refugee currently attending RHS as a senior, states another difference was the grade levels. Along with kindergarten, grades one through eleven are all taught in the same building. After ninth grade, students can opt to go to a medical college for their last two years of high school, tenth and eleventh grade, before going to university. Additionally, according to George, the student-teacher relationship in American schools is less formal than it is in Ukraine. “Here a teacher is like…an older friend, you can tell them something and they can help” added George.
Three weeks after the war began, George left his hometown of Odessa with his mother. After traveling to Moldova, a trip lengthened by getting stuck at the border, he traveled through Romania for fifteen hours to get to the airport in Bucharest.
Although he was able to travel to the U.S., his family was not. “We went to the airport. I said bye to my mom,” said George, as he was the only person in his family with an American visa. He continued, “Not only my grandparents, everybody stays in Ukraine. I’m here by myself.”
“You don’t know if they [George’s parents] will be alive the next day. That’s a very hard thing to think about, that you are in a safe place, but where is my family right now?” said Anastasia Bard, a member of the family hosting George.
In addition to making the sacrifice of leaving his family behind, George’s routine changed entirely. For his first two months in the U.S., he stayed in Brooklyn, waking up at 3:00 am to attend Zoom classes for his school in Ukraine. To support himself, he went to work at an auto mechanic shop at 6:00 am, when his classes ended. This routine continued until he was unable to stay with his family friends, living with another family in New Jersey starting in May, and coming to his current hosts in October. He will stay with them until he goes off to college next fall.
“I think every child deserves an education, and to belong…seeing him hanging out with friends, it warms my heart,” said Mrs. Bard. She continued, “We take it for granted that we have friends… but when you move to a new country, it’s a completely strange environment.”
Mrs. Bard has been working with her husband to collect and send needed items and materials through their contacts in Ukraine. As Mr. and Mrs. Bard both immigrated from Ukraine, they felt a strong connection to its people and wanted to help in any way they could.
“The first few days we kind of felt helpless and shock…my husband and I felt terrible that things were happening in the country where we were born, but when we learned what our friends in Ukraine were missing, we knew we could do something. It was a way to stay active and helpful instead of just angry and depressed.” said Mrs. Bard.
At the start of the war, George and Len shared the sentiment that the war drove people to act irrationally. Items were flying off grocery store shelves much faster than they could be restocked as people panicked. Lines for food and other necessities extended at every store.
“We were told there would be a war in six months, no one believed it, and it came,” said George. He heard the first bombs exploding one morning. At first unsure of what was going on, he jokingly said to his mom, “‘They attacked us.’” Soon, the repeated bombing made reality set in: “There was this time that a rocket flew by… it was very close, and the walls in our house were shaking,” said George. Fear began to seep in as people began to realize the war had begun.
“And when hostilities had already begun near the city [Mariupol], the explosions and all were heard, so no one went outside,” said Len. “It’s bad in Ukraine now. They turn off the electricity for ten hours a day in all of Ukraine, that is, it’s bad to live there right now, and the people still there need to leave for a few months until the hostilities end.”
While some, like George and Len, were able to flee Ukraine, others did not have that opportunity and continue to suffer from the violence and horrors of the war. George further explained the impact of the war on ordinary citizens, “Many peoples’ lives have been destroyed… I don’t mean that someone went to war, someone died, or someone will die, that’s what I already know, it’s war. It’s scary that the ordinary routine; it has disappeared.”
Graphic: Gina Vaynshteyn