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In New York, Ukrainian heritage schools keep culture alive as country is in peril

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“I’m very glad that we have this community especially in these kinds of situations, we have people to talk to, people to share our feelings with. We’re all a big family because you’re from one heritage that we’re all proud of,” said Sofiia Zelena, 16, a 11th grade student at the school. “This is the one thing that connects us all, our culture, our homeland.”

Ruslana Makar, the principal’s 15-year-old daughter and a student of the school, became emotional as she said in a classroom Saturday that “now that everything’s happening, it’s really important that we know our language and our traditions.”

People attend a prayer service for Ukraine at St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church in New York on Saturday.Julius Constantine Motal/NBC News

Yulia Holiyat, 11, said she has been “devastated” by the news of the invasion and doesn’t know what to say to other children.

“All of us here in this room have a big family from Ukraine,” she said, breaking down in tears as another student came over to hug and comfort her.

“Little kids at the park are asking like, ‘What’s happening? Why is this happening?’ I’m like, ‘I can’t answer that because I don’t know what’s going to happen and what’s going to happen to our country,’” she said.

People attend a prayer service for Ukraine at St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church on Feb. 26, 2022, in New York.A prayer service for Ukraine at St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church in New York on Saturday.Julius Constantine Motal/NBC News

Iryna Chuyan, the principal of the neighboring School of Ukrainian Studies CYM, said it is important for heritage schools to be a source of emotional support during the conflict.

“What can we do? What can we say? The main idea of ​​the school is to have everything under control. Don’t panic because panic will never help you,” she said. “We try to calm them down because sometimes they are scared for their families.”

Ivan Makar, the principal of Self-Reliance School of Ukrainian Studies, leads an assembly about the crisis in Ukraine on Feb. 26, 2022, in New York.Ivan Makar, the principal of the Self-Reliance Saturday School of Ukrainian Studies, leads an assembly about the crisis in Ukraine in New York on Saturday.Julius Constantine Motal/NBC News

Makar, the principal, also sought to reassure his students at a school assembly that preceded a prayer service at the St. George’s Ukrainian Catholic Church.

“We’re all gathered here today in strong support for our brethren in Ukraine. The fact that we are here symbolizes that we will never be broken,” he said. “This is nothing new in our history. It happened many times from the Russian aggressor.”

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