You might think this is a story and video about a Kindergarten anywhere in the USA. Until you get to the bomb shelter.
In Ukraine no one has a normal life. What is normal? A mother’s instinct to raise her children in her home, in safety and in school.
Obviously, Ukraine is at war and everyone in it lives with the constant threat of a Russian missile or Iranian drone striking them, their children, and their homes. At the very least those in urban centers can count on a missile targeting their power grid, often within earshot. The power can go out at any time as can the heat where the weather is like Boston’s.
All state approved kindergartens have bomb shelters where the children – and their teachers – go when the sirens go off, a regular occurrence in Kyiv. Mothers have it high on their list of things they look for when searching for a school.
Children are growing up in this environment, only months after COVID restrictions relaxed a bit and kids were brought back to classes in late 2001. In fact, a missile hit a high rise building just a couple hundred meters away from this place not long ago.
Life goes on.
When I was here last April children were few and far between – as were their mothers. It is striking to see how many are back and my interviews shed light on the reasons why. Every story is different though they all share a common theme: mothers bringing their children home because they want to raise them in their own homes, in their own country, in their own culture. They want their children raised in Ukraine. Plus, women are working in various professions if childcare can be found, such as at the kindergarten.
Teachers, mothers, and children in Ukraine have something in common with their allies in America. In the USA schools have “code reds” in case a mass shooter enters the school like at Sandy Hook, Parkland, or Uvalde. Teachers are charged with protecting and keeping children calm while they hide. They tell them they will keep them safe. Same in Ukraine.
But a mother’s fear is ever-present I suppose. The most often repeated phrase I hear in Ukraine is the desire for a return to a normal life, in safety. Most of the women we spoke to had left the country after the February 24, 2022, invasion, or at least left Kyiv for cities in the western part of the country. All came home in the summer and fall when reports from friends, families, and neighbors made them feel safe enough to do so.
I was very fortunate to be invited into the school. The parents and faculty had to sign off on my visit and three English speaking mothers made themselves available for interviews. It was all arranged by Fr. Roman Nebozhuk whom I met through a fortuitous introduction by Fr. Yaroslav Nalysnyk in Boston. Fr. Roman is Archpriest of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Patriarchal Cathedral in Kyiv and associate professor of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies of the Borys Grinchenko Kyiv University. He is also a consultant of the State Service of Ukraine for Ethnopolitics and Freedom of Conscience. He is at the center of the ecumenical community in Kyiv and works with Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Jewish, and Islamic faith leaders there. I am also told he plays a mean accordion. You’ll see him in the video as well as his lovely daughter Andriana who acts as our guide and primary interviewee. She works/volunteers at the school and is also an attorney. Both her father and grandfather are priests, and she is a faithful, churchgoing member of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
The 4-minute video is a quick edit of close to two hours of video that we recorded for the new film Back to Bucha. In addition to the interviews, we see kids learning, singing, and dancing. We see where they take their naps. All so normal.
Then we see their cheerfully painted bomb shelter. Fortunately, no siren wailed during my visit.
We just finished the Bucha premiere of Trek to Bucha with 100+ Bucha residents in attendance, including many of those in the film. It was a festive occasion in the Viktoria Park Hotel ballroom, and they seemed to like the film pretty well – though I’m thinking the beef stroganoff, wine, and cheesecake may have had even more to do with the general high spirits than the film itself. No matter! It was a great reception, and I’m hoping all that came will remember it fondly. I certainly took lots of photos. They must have thought I was somebody! They certainly were assured that America was there with them. I also received a gift of a quart of Ukrainian Whiskey that the donator said had his soul in it.
This being a much-anticipated high point of the 5-week tour means we are in the home stretch with one last screening before I head back home, which will be at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv next Sunday, the 12th.
I’ve visited a 1,000-year-old Orthodox monastery, a Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, and the most infamous building in Ukraine – St. Andrew’s Orthodox Church in Bucha. I even found a German Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kyiv where a lady preacher led the service. I’ve talked with priests and churchgoers, atheists and Bohemians, and we are already busy editing Back to Bucha, which includes footage from my first visit and the new footage I’ve accumulated.
The return of children to Kyiv and Bucha is the biggest difference since I was here in the spring, along with their moms who also were largely absent last April as families waited for the battle lines to stabilize a bit before returning to their homes. Teenagers and lovers too. It’s a matter of “life goes on” and getting back to some state of normalcy amidst the blackouts, missile strikes, and ruins they still must deal with here.
The best video I’ve shot that demonstrates the Christian culture and the children’s place in it was from the service last Sunday at the UCC Cathedral in Kyiv.
I found myself in a section on the side with an ongoing flow of children. In fact, children are what most impacted me at the sung divine liturgy. They were everywhere. And seemed to have total run of the place! Apparently, Christmas is still ongoing as there were Christmas trees and a life-sized manger scene, which I realized was why so many kids – and their parents – were stopping by. My favorite moment was when a young girl walked across the church to the manger scene, completely oblivious to the priest delivering the sermon. She walked over, reached into the basket for a treat, then walked back to her mom, sat down, and enjoyed her candy. No one batted an eye.
Christendom is ubiquitous in Ukraine, perhaps even more so than in the USA because there doesn’t seem to be anything holding back the display of religious statues and icons in public places. Gold-domed churches are everywhere and dominate central Kyiv. Everyone I interview tells me about their faith roots, and all are Christians. It is a bedrock of their culture and spirit, much like in the USA.
But let me be clear, though – they aren’t zealots. Most normal citizens attend church much like most Americans do. And they can have fun with this Christian culture of theirs. Especially in this time of war where a trident is the country’s prehistoric symbol, though no one seems to be able to tell me why – or where it came from.
Not so with a new addition to the icons is Saint Javelina – an internet meme that’s gone viral. You can see in the patch I was given by Gene Yee in Boston what appears to be the Virgin Mary holding a USA-made Javelin missile.
Got to love the spirit here.