Catholic school’s sacrifices allow Ukraine kids to build lives, touch hearts safe from war

by Mariana Karapinka

(OSV News) — Children at a Ukrainian Catholic school in New Jersey are remembering loved ones left behind in Ukraine, as Russia’s full-scale invasion of that country approaches the one-year mark.

Assumption Ukrainian Catholic School in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, now counts 18 students who recently fled the war in Ukraine. The refugees have created a special wall of remembrance, filled with pictures of family and friends who remain in Ukraine. Every day, the Assumption students offer an extra Hail Mary for them.

“We have many kids whose relatives are fighting in the war, and one girl’s grandfather was killed,” said Father Ivan Turyk, the school’s chief administrator and pastor of the school’s parish, Ukrainian Catholic Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Perth Amboy.

Father Turyk, a native of Ukraine who emigrated to the U.S. in 1999 to enter St. Josaphat’s Ukrainian Catholic Seminary in Washington, D.C., said most of the school’s Ukrainian children arrived in this country with only their mothers and female relatives. Men from 18 to 60 are not allowed to leave Ukraine amid the war.

“Some kids stay at school for the whole day, and we become parents for them,” he said. “We teach them to tie their shoes and say that they did a good job with coloring.”

Eighth-grader Anya Savka came three months ago from the western Ukrainian town of Sambir with her mother while her father stayed in Ukraine.

Principal Lissette Shumny described Savka as one of the school’s most hard-working students.

For her part, Savka, who enjoys algebra, said teachers and classmates have been “really nice,” adding she appreciates their help as she learns English.

While most of the refugees have come from Ukraine’s “more or less safe” western region, many have nonetheless been “traumatized,” said Father Turyk.

Shumny said that trauma becomes vividly apparent during security drills for overall school safety.

“Although we explained why we do lockdowns, and why we do shelter in place, during the first drill a couple of kids were crying,” she said, noting all of Assumption’s teachers are trained in trauma-informed care. “It is scary for regular students. . . . Imagine someone coming from [Ukraine] hearing those alarms.”

The school provides “a stable environment” where the kids “have friends … and teachers who speak some Ukrainian,” said Father Turyk.

A stable environment is what most Ukrainian children need. The ongoing war has disrupted the education process for more than 5 million children, according to UNICEF. That deficit compounds two years of lost learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

UNICEF analysts noted in a Jan. 23 press release that the majority of Ukrainian refugee children, an estimated 2 out of 3, are not currently enrolled in their host countries’ educational systems.

Assumption is helping show how Catholic education can address that gap by discounting tuition from the annual $5,500 to $100 per month for each refugee student — a sacrificial move for the school, which has sustained between $80,000 to $90,000 in lost revenue as a result.

“With this gesture to our fellow Ukrainians, we have taken a big hit,” Father Turyk admitted. “But we feel this is something we should do as a church and as a community. And this is what the church is about.”

The school is also pooling its resources to provide English language instruction, launching a special fund allowing for additional ESL (English as a Second Language) classes two to three times per week.

“I wish we had more resources to help them with English every day after school. Just regular conversations,” said Shumny.

She and administrators have temporarily allowed the students to use their cellphones in class for translating assignments — but the measure is not a long-term solution, said Shumny, since “you are not going to learn English translating every single word.”

Father Turyk and two other teachers who speak Ukrainian are translating classroom materials for students, who are grateful to hear their first language spoken in a foreign land.

“If they know that someone speaks Ukrainian, you see the smile on their faces. They feel that they belong,” said Father Turyk.

The administration and teachers are also finding ways to talk about the war in Ukraine with other students in a way they would understand, offering classes on Ukraine and praying for peace at every Friday’s Divine Liturgy.

The students from Ukraine have enriched the lives of the Assumption community, said Shumny.

“They teach me to be more humble, to be more honest,” she said. “They have come here to a whole new place, and they have done it with great strength; they have done it with a smile. I know that it is not easy for them to be here when the rest of their family, their friends, all of their things — their house, their home, their bed, their toys — are still back in their country.”

About the author

OSV News

Leave a Comment