Ukrainian family reflects on their children’s first school year in US after fleeing war

Ukrainian war refugees who began arriving in the U.S. over a year ago are completing their first taste of the U.S. education system with the conclusion of the academic year. 

More than 270,000 Ukrainians, many of them children, have been admitted into the country since Russia launched its invasion in February 2022, with many finding seats in American classrooms. 

Inna Novak and Liudmyla Rybak, two sisters whose husbands stayed behind to fight, were able to make it into the U.S. last September, just in time for the school year. Their grade for their children’s experiences so far? A.

In an interview this week with The Hill conducted through a translator, the two women spoke with excitement about the education their children are receiving in Florida, emphasizing the love second-grader Margo, Novak’s daughter, and high schooler Max, Rybak’s son, have for their school. 

“Max, for the first time in 10 years, he was actually interested in school. He even said, ‘I actually kind of like going to school,’” Rybak said. 

The United Nations estimated last year that about two-thirds of Ukrainian children had been displaced due to the war. Neighboring countries have taken in the most refugees, with both Poland and Germany recording more than a million Ukrainians entering their borders.

Rybak and Novak had first gone to a refugee camp in Ireland but say their husbands were concerned about the possibility of nuclear war affecting all of Europe, so they set their sights on the United States.

The U.S. government will try to pair Ukrainian refugees with any family they have in the country; states with the largest Ukrainian populations include New York, Pennsylvania and California. 

But Ukrainians can come to the U.S. through a number of different programs and end up where their sponsor lives.

Through Welcome Connect, an organization that pairs refugees with American sponsors, the two sisters met Elizabeth Langland, a resident of St. Augustine, Fla., who says she felt compelled to act after hearing about the struggles Ukrainians were facing. 

“I just have to say it was extraordinary to see them come off the plane. And we ran into each other’s arms immediately, an immediate sense of bonding,” Langland said. 

She said she had Margo and Max enrolled in local schools before the plane even landed, with plans in place to tackle the language barrier.

“The schools were so helpful even though I’m in a small town, relatively,” Langland said. 

Max was given an iPad when he started school that would translate what his teacher was saying into Ukrainian. 

Margo quickly caught on to English, becoming the most fluent speaker in her family, according to her mom. 

“She’s very social, has made lots of friends, and it’s been a wonderful experience for her, but I have to say the schools have just been positive all along,” Langland said. 

There was more concern about Max, who had been in Ukrainian schools all his life, adjusting to the U.S. His mother said after only a few days the teenager said he “actually likes it and really enjoys it.”

While Max is struggling a bit more to make friends than Margo, his mom chalks it up to typical teenager behavior. He was, however, able to find another student at his school who was Ukrainian, and she was able to give him confidence about what his journey would look like. 

“Here was another girl who was also from Ukraine. She said that the school is amazing, that everything is great, that he’s going to love it,” Rybak said.

The two mothers proudly show off awards their kids have gotten, including a student of the week for Margo and a baseball commendation for Max.

Novak said the American education system is “very, very different” from the Ukrainian one, including more emphasis on rewarding academic success.

“So that’s very motivating for little kids,” she said. 

“It’s amazing that the school acknowledges accomplishments that kids make, and it is especially important for kids who just came from a whole other country in the middle of the war,” Novak added. 

While many U.S. students are breathing a sigh of relief as they walk out schools for summer break, Margo is already eager for the next school year to start. 

Max, meanwhile, is preparing to get his driving permit and find a part-time job. 

“You just have to want it and take action, and Ukrainians are very adaptable to their surroundings and their area. They’re very motivated to live better, to reach their goals,” Novak said.

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