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How A Ukrainian Village School Is Making Families Escaping Russian Invasion Feel At Home In Chicago

St. Nicholas Cathedral School has set up services for families who fled the war. But they still need help with donations and school supplies for about 65 students from Ukraine.

Arsen and Alena Raczkiewycz pose for a portrait at St. Nicholas Cathedral School in Ukrainian Village on Aug. 23, 2022.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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UKRAINIAN VILLAGE — Sixth-grader Arsen Raczkiewycz dribbled up and down the basketball court at St. Nicholas Cathedral School, participating in a camp with about 20 of his classmates Tuesday morning.

Less than a block away, Arsen’s mother, Olena Raczkiewycz, was taking an English class in the basement of St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, 835 N. Oakley Blvd., with other women who recently arrived in Chicago from Ukraine.

In between, the school and street were bustling with activity. Teachers gathered for a training on social-emotional learning. Administrators worked with parents to finalize documents and organize uniforms ahead of the first day of classes Thursday. Ukrainian-speaking volunteers helped translate children’s vaccine records before they received free shots and checkups out of a pediatric Care-A-Van operated by Humboldt Park Health.

As dozens of Ukrainian families fled the Russian invasion and settled in Chicago over the past six months, St. Nicholas has grown from a neighborhood Catholic elementary school to a community and social service hub.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The Okonovska family poses for a portrait at St. Nicholas Cathedral School in Ukrainian Village on Aug. 23, 2022.

Eight students from Ukraine came to St. Nicholas in mid-March. By the end of the school year, nearly 80 Ukrainian students were enrolled, Principal Anna Cirilli said.

A few students have since moved back to Ukraine or to Chicago’s suburbs, but St. Nicholas will begin the school year with about 65 recently arrived students from Ukraine, Cirilli said. The school had about 160 students total before the invasion began.

Teachers and faculty have responded to the influx of students — most of whom speak little English — by expanding the idea of what the school can be, its leaders said. That’s meant free language classes for kids and their parents, donation drives for school supplies, health screenings, sports camps and more.

To that end, St. Nicholas is holding a back-to-school donation drive to collect supplies, gift cards and money for help with tuition.

Administrators set up an Amazon wishlist with school supplies and uniforms for the students and are asking for items to be shipped directly to the school.

They’re also collecting monetary donations for tuition assistance through the Big Shoulders Fund, a nonprofit which supports St. Nicholas and other Catholic schools in Chicago.

“We’ve become more than just a school, for sure,” Assistant Principal Lisa Swytnyk said. “We have definitely evolved into becoming more than just education. It’s the holistic approach. … There’s constantly things happening here now, different sorts of resources that we can provide to the families so they can feel some sort of peace.”

‘We’re Trying To Do Everything We Can’

When St. Nicholas began enrolling students who fled Ukraine this spring, many showed up unannounced with their families at the school or at the church next door, having just arrived in the United States, school leaders said.

The priority was making sure the new students were safe and emotionally supported, Swytnyk and Cirilli said. They brought in counselors for the students and hosted successful donation drives for coats, shoes, school supplies, toiletries and more.

“The focus was on making them feel welcome, teaching the other kids how to make them feel welcome,” Cirilli said. “There were just sort of like modifications so that learning could still happen. … We didn’t isolate the new students, but we didn’t force them to like jump right in and get a report card.”

Teachers are still working to provide that support while trying to bring a sense of normalcy to the classroom for all of St. Nicholas’ students, Cirilli said.

But the needs for the Ukrainian students and their families remain high. Attention, support and donations directed toward Ukrainian causes have slowed as the war faded from the headlines, Swytnyk said.

“Back in the springtime, when we started sharing our wishlist, that was amazing. But it stopped — and it’s totally gone at this point,” Swytnyk said.

“We definitely are still missing the little pieces now that just help them feel like they’re still staying afloat. We’re trying to do everything we can for the kids that are traumatized and their mothers who are traumatized, and that’s hard, finding the resources for that.”

Credit: Provided
St. Nicholas Cathedral School in Ukrainian Village is holding a donation drive for school supplies and monetary assistance to support students from Ukraine

In the meantime, St. Nicholas is still providing its wide range of services to the new students and their families.

Humboldt Park Health’s pediatric van has visited several times throughout the summer, offering medical and dental checkups.

One challenge for the school has been acquiring vaccination records of Ukrainian students. When it does receive them, the cards have to be translated, so the school has been working with volunteer doctors who speak Ukrainian.

“Every time we’ve been here, there’s been at least two doctors that speak Ukrainian and are able to translate the vaccine records for us and also answer any questions the parents have. So that’s been great for us,” nurse practitioner Tomasa Valencia said. “I’m really happy that they were able to set it up that way. We wouldn’t be able to do it if we didn’t have translators. And especially that they’re doctors, it was very helpful.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Humboldt Park Health set up its Pediatric Care-A-Van at St. Nicholas Cathedral School in Ukrainian Village on Aug. 23, 2022.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Principal Anna Cirilli and assistant principal Lisa Swytnyk, along with Ivanna the dog, pose for a portrait at St. Nicholas Cathedral School in Ukrainian Village on Aug. 23, 2022.

The school is also hosting adult English classes twice a week in the church basement through nonprofit Literacy Chicago. That follows an eight-week English camp held for students over the summer.

The classes have been essential for Olena Raczkiewycz as she and her children transition to life in the United States, she said. On Tuesday, an instructor went over basic traffic and driving rules and how to write a check.

“And these lessons are really helpful, very helpful … we have topics that we use in everyday life,” Raczkiewycz said. “We’re here in a different country, different society, and we try to figure it out, to dive in to society.”

But while the war is no longer top of mind for many Americans, Swytnyk, who speaks Ukrainian, said it’s still brutally fresh for the children and mothers she sees at school and in the neighborhood.

During the Chicago Air and Water Show, Swytnyk fielded confused and fearful concerns from Ukrainian parents, who she said felt like like they had been transported back to a war zone. And six months after Russia’s invasion, many of the families’ fathers and husbands remain in Ukraine, which most men younger than 60 have been barred from leaving.

“These people have nothing to go home to, even if they do go back at this point,” Swytnyk said. “And they so badly want the rest of their family to be together. They’re separated from everything and everyone that they know.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Zakhar Poteki and his mother Halyna Horblianska pose for a portrait at St. Nicholas Cathedral School in Ukrainian Village on Aug. 23, 2022.

Swytnyk said six months into the war, St. Nicholas is still receiving new students, and it’s been a challenge to find classrooms to place them all. But the school will continue to be a resource for everyone who shows up, in and outside of the classroom, she said.

“We all have been having to give so much more of ourselves,” Swytnyk said. “The teachers have been beyond amazing with everything they’ve been doing and things they have come up with, just different ways to best help them, the kids.

“We’re trying to do everything we can.”

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