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STAMFORD — Lucas Romero saw an opportunity when he noticed the large influx of students coming to Westhill High School from Ukraine.
The bilingual para-educator at the district’s largest high school reached out to a familiar face: Ukrainian-American student Daniel Bak, who Romero has known since he was about 3 years old as a friend of Bak’s family.
He approached Bak with the idea of creating a club for new and current Ukrainian students at the school to help ease the transition for refugee students.
Bak agreed, and soon Ukrainian-American student Emily Pekar joined as co-president of the group.
Eventually, the club grew to about 15 students. Every week, they meet at least once in the classroom of teacher Denise Grant, the chair of the English Language Learners department at the school, to check in on one another.
“We just try our best to communicate with everyone and make them feel comfortable,” Pekar said. “It also just feels like a family because when we connect and talk to each other, we always … feel safe together.”
The feeling of family was a common refrain from the students, who gathered on a recent Thursday in Grant’s class after school. That is in part due to the fact that many members are literally related.
New arrivals Arsen Dolishnyi and Yuliana Dolishna are siblings staying with cousin Ash Ladyka, another member of the club. Sisters Diana Gavrylchuk and Nastya Gavrylchuk, who were new arrivals in Stamford eight years ago, were two of the original four members of the club.
The influx of Ukrainian students arriving in Westhill is not just a phenomena specific to that school. Stamford has been a popular destination for Ukrainians feeling their home country since it was invaded by Russia, at least when compared with other municipalities in Connecticut.
One of the biggest reasons is Stamford’s long-established Ukrainian community.
Stamford’s Glenbrook neighborhood is home to the Ukrainian Catholic Diocese of Stamford, the Ukrainian Catholic cathedral Saint Vladimir’s, as well as a School of Ukrainian Studies and the Ukrainian Museum and Library of Stamford.
While the school district does not keep statistics on the number of refugee students coming from Ukraine, the large increase in students from that area can be roughly deduced by the predominant language listed by students just arriving in Stamford.
Mike Meyer, director of family and community engagement for Stamford Public Schools, said about 200 of the 16,200 students in the entire school system reported Ukrainian as their home language. In comparison, 5,270 students reported speaking Spanish at home and 8,922 reported speaking English at home.
Of those 200 who speak Ukrainian at home, 102 are English Language Learner (ELL) students, meaning they have limited understanding of English.
There’s a strong likelihood, Meyer said, that many of those students are new arrivals to the district and potentially refugees from the war with Russia.
Some 2,300 of the English learners in the district list Spanish as their primary language; however, the number of Ukrainian-speaking students in Stamford has now surpassed Haitian-Creole as the second most common among the ELL population in the school district, he said.
At the Westhill Ukrainian Club on Thursday, the mood in the room was mostly jovial, as the students laughed and smiled while talking about their time at the school and the friendships they’ve made through the club. But many students spoke about the daily struggles they face as many family members and loved ones remain in Ukraine.
Power outages in many Ukrainian cities, as well as power conservation, have meant family members are at times impossible to contact by telephone.
“Some nights we can’t call our grandparents,” Bak said.
“We just get worried,” Pekar said.
The students, many wearing traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirts, said the club has helped them cope with the difficult times.
“We just wanted everyone to connect and communicate and get comfortable with everyone else because it’s really hard for everyone to come into a new country and they don’t even know how to speak English, so it’s really hard for them,” Pekar said. “We don’t know how it feels.”
Diana Gavrylchuk, on the other hand, said she and her sister came to Stamford with little ability to speak and understand English so can make instant connections to the newcomers.
“We know how they feel and how difficult it is to not know English,” she said.
The description of the club reads, “These refugees moved to America because their home is at war. They are scared and don’t know English too well. This club is for them to have new friends and make them feel better.” And adding to that, “whoever joins can also learn about the lifestyle, food and culture.”
In Grant’s room were four students who had recently come from Ukraine.
Among them was Andrii Trysoruka, who said he liked the education at Westhill more than what he was used to in Ukraine. A big reason, he said, are the teachers.
“He said he likes the teachers here because they talk to you one-on-one,” said Diana, translating Trysoruka’s comments. “Here, teachers try to learn more about you.”
Each student said Ukrainian schools tend to be much smaller. Dolishnyi said a typical classroom in schools he attended had about seven students, and a school would hold about 100 students. Westhill, by comparison, has an enrollment of roughly 2,300 students.
Arsen Dolishnyi and Yuliana Dolishna, brother and sister, both prepared written comments about their time in the club.
“I like this club because it helps me meet new people, make friends, and connect with the community,” wrote Dolishnyi.
“In this club, we don’t forget about Ukrainian tradition and culture, even when we move to America,” wrote Dolishna.
Students in the club decorated a hallway board near Grant’s classroom with pictures and descriptions of Ukrainian dances, clothing and food.
“We wanted this school to learn more about the tradition, what we do in Ukraine,” Pekar said.
She added, “Traditional food is really important to us and we love making it.”
Romero said that after the success of the Ukrainian club, he plans to create a club for students coming from Latin American countries.
Michael Rinaldi, principal at Westhill, said he hopes to have the Ukrainian students be part of the school’s recently created podcast series.
“The supportive environment created by Mr. Romero, Mrs. Grant and especially our student leaders through this club is without a doubt one of the most beautiful initiatives I’ve ever been a part of over my entire career,” Rinaldi commented in a written message.
Pekar and Bak said the club has been a way for them to feel even more connected to their school and classmates.
“We’re pretty much like a family in this club,” Bak said.
Ignacio Laguarda is a reporter who covers education and more for the Stamford Advocate.
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