It’s gym day at St. Nicholas Cathedral School in Ukrainian Village and a swarm of preschoolers are doing arm lifts in the auditorium.
Their gym teacher for the day is Oksana Vasylenko. The young mother arrived in Chicago earlier this year from Ukraine with her 3-year-old son Sasha. He’s in the class, and periodically runs up to hug her leg.
A lot of the students don’t speak English, so Vasylenko jumps between English and Ukrainian.
St. Nicholas has long been home to mostly Ukrainian American families, with just a handful of families coming directly from Ukraine each year. But since the Russian invasion in February, the school has become a hub for families who come to America seeking refuge. Now, half a year later, Ukrainian refugees make up a third of the school’s student body.
The school has helped 75 students and their families, with about 65 students enrolling this fall.
Many of the parents arrived with next to nothing, so the school is offering far more than an education.
It’s letting Sasha study for free and gave him clothes, food and school supplies. It even helped Vasylenko find an apartment.
She worked as a human resources specialist in Ukraine. Once her work permit comes in the mail, Vasylenko said she will work again. Then, she can start paying her son’s tuition.
“I’m volunteering because the school has really helped me and my son,” Vasylenko said.
Life at St. Nicholas after six months of war
The school’s efforts to help families like Vasylenko’s have made them feel more comfortable going into this new school year.
But as the war drags on, so does their anxiety.
“The longer they stay in Chicago, they feel torn away from their country,” said principal Anna Cirilli. “It makes that reality of being able to go back home so much more distant. And that has led to a lot of anxiety.”
While strolling through a school corridor, Cirilli points to some student drawings of tanks and plumes of smoke. She said it was helpful to have an art class last school year, because “it really helps students illustrate their emotions.”
They had a kindergarten student who drew black pictures when he first arrived. By the end of the school year, he started drawing pictures in color again.
Still, absorbing so many families has been stressful for St. Nicholas. The school received a lot of donations earlier this year to help its students. But as the rush to help with the war effort has waned, so has the money. Now, they’re grappling with the reality of helping many new students financially while trying not to hurt the school. Tuition ranges from $6,800 to $7,700.
“Multiply that by 65,” Cirilli said. “It’s impacting the entire community because already we’re an inner-city Catholic school with roughly 60% low income [students]. We can’t forget about those students [either].”
Since the war started, the number of new students has fluctuated. Some moved to the suburbs, others returned to Ukraine or other nearby European countries. Some have graduated and moved on to high school.
But St. Nicholas has also had to turn away families as some grade levels filled up. Cirilli said she doesn’t have the heart to say no to them. She asks her office staff to do it for her.
“It’s hard to look someone in the face and say we don’t have room,” Cirilli said. “To see someone coming from so far away, with such need, it’s heartbreaking.”
Arrival date and age both impact student adjustment
The first arrivals, who came directly to America, fit in more quickly, said middle school math teacher Monica Idec.
“After a while, we started getting students who had country hopped, had gone to different countries, and then ended up with us,” Idec said. “You could tell that they were traumatized by those experiences.”
It took a few weeks for the shock to begin to fade and for the kids to start opening up.
“After that, I think they started realizing like, ‘Hey, I’m safe. I’m okay, I can be a kid again,’ ” Idec said, who is normally bubbly but sighs deeply as she recalls what her students went through.The language barrier complicated things, as most of the new students don’t speak English. And most teachers don’t speak Ukrainian.
Still, Idec was amazed by how her bilingual students stepped in to help.
“They just took those new kids under their wing,” Idec said. “They welcomed them, helped them. They were willing to do anything to make them feel comfortable.”
Cirlli said the school hired some additional teachers and a bilingual assistant who helps mostly with the primary classes. The school also organized an English boot camp over the summer to help the new students acclimate.
But teachers say kids of different age groups are responding differently. The younger children, who don’t understand what war is, have had an easier time than older kids who can hold on to stress longer and may also have a harder time expressing their feelings.
With time, the kids are picking up the language. Like little Sasha, who now speaks a mix of Ukrainian, Russian and English. During a break in between gym classes, Vasylenko jokes that he can ask for water using all three.
It wasn’t easy for Vasylenko when she first arrived.
A large majority of Ukrainian Americans in Chicago come from western parts of Ukraine and many already had family waiting for them when they arrived in the city.
But Vasylenko comes from Kremenchuk, a city in central Ukraine. Like many refugees from central and eastern parts of Ukraine, she didn’t have any relatives to turn to in America.
It wasn’t easy for Sasha either.
“In the beginning he had tantrums, nightmares. He didn’t eat well,” Vasylenko said.
Now, he’s adjusted to their new home and to the fact that his dad is just an image on a phone screen. She hasn’t told Sasha his dad is on the frontlines, clearing mines.
“I’m scared that I can wake up one morning and he might not pick up the phone,” she said, her voice quivering.
As students start pouring into the auditorium again, she wipes a tear from her cheek and gets up to teach the next class.