(Editor's note: Elk River native and 1989 Elk River High School graduate Diane Baima decided against returning to her hometown after war broke out Feb. 24, 2022, in Ukraine in favor of staying in that country with her brave Ukrainian husband, Yurii Potapenko.
She continues to work as a language teacher at a small international school there.
“Whether I survive this war or not, I remain true to my teenage aspiration to help bring peace to the world,” said Baima, whose maiden name is Westphal.
To see what this last year has been like for Baima and her students, see her account below.
To see the Star News’ first report, go to https://bit.ly/3l9bFA2.)
by Diane Baima
Special to the Star News
This article comes from an angry place in my heart. I am writing it on Wednesday, February 15. Today my students and I spent 3 hours in the bomb shelter — and missed all the afternoon classes. Yesterday we spent 2 hours there in the morning — and missed our classes. On Monday we had a full day. Last Friday we were in the shelter from 8:30-12:00, 1:15-2:25, and once again from 4:30-6:15. That’s almost seven hours! Imagine having a school day that looked like that! That is the life of a child in Ukraine during war time.
And these are the lucky kids who have a school that is open and running.
Since 2014, I have been living and working in Ukraine. The first five years I taught fifth grade at an American International School to wonderful children from all over the world. In 2018 I got married and in 2019, I moved out of Kyiv to my husband’s pretty, little hobby farm. I got a job teaching grade one at a very small school with a bilingual curriculum.
From 2019-2022 Ukrainian children lost so much school time due to the pandemic. And since Feb. 24, 2022, Russia has been bombing and killing Ukrainians. This is what teaching school throughout the war has been like for me.
All Ukrainian schools closed on Feb. 24, and many stayed closed for the rest of the year. Schools in the east and south were often targeted by Russian missile strikes — if there is a school, people might be hiding there for safety. So, terrorist Russia would bomb them. According to Politico, about 10% of the schools in Ukraine have been destroyed or damaged.
Other schools opened online. My school did this after a week with a shortened schedule and only core classes. One of the teachers fled when war broke out, so I took her class too. Most of the Ukrainian and English teachers left, but still kept teaching their classes to support the children. A few of us stayed in Ukraine. The same with the families. Many left and a few stayed. At the end of April, when it was finally safe to drive in the Kyiv region, I invited the families of my students that had stayed in Ukraine to our farm to see our new lambs and play together. Nothing makes you more hopeful than watching a bunch of little boys and girls finally able to run and shout and play after so many weeks stuck inside.
We worked online until the end of the school year. From May-June there was an extreme gas shortage due to the war. One had to wait for hours in line in Kyiv to get any gas. I stayed home while my husband Yurii did the errands and waited in line.
After the school year was over and I hadn’t left the house for a couple months, I finally set out to fill the car with gas. I only had to try two stations and wait for 30 minutes by this time. The price had doubled, but I finally had a bit of freedom. I was going crazy staying at home with no way to escape from my 89-year-old mother-in-law for a bit of solitude.
During the summer I continued to work to keep my mind busy. Besides my job at the Ukrainian school, I have been tutoring the children of two Ukrainian families online all through the pandemic. One is a mother and her nine year-old girl. They left Kyiv and drove to Germany during the first week of the war. They are still there, living in a host’s home in a village in Germany. Alexandra studies at the German school with a few other Ukrainian children, and she continues to do all her lessons with her Ukrainian teacher and English with me online. She can’t wait to go home and see Grandpa and her friends again.
The other family has twin children, a boy and girl, also aged nine. The moms of these two families work together at a Ukrainian bank, and continue to work from abroad. This family first moved to Gdansk, Poland, but moved to Warsaw in the summer because apartments were cheaper and it was easier for the father to work in Warsaw. They are learning in a Polish school, and, like Alexandra, continue with the Ukrainian curriculum online, as well as English with me. In Ukraine, the twins had their own rooms in a house outside Kyiv. In Poland they share a bedroom with their five-year-old little brother. Their grandma sleeps on the sofa in the living room. They cannot wait to go home, but the parents chose to stay in Poland so they would not have to spend time in bomb shelters.
Each Ukrainian parent has this huge decision to make. Stay in Ukraine with air raid sirens and lack of electricity, or live abroad away from family, friends and, oftentimes, work.
I also tutored a few children in the neighborhood. Every parent believes that English is important for their child’s future. I could have spent all day, every day teaching if I were willing. But I took some time for gardening, preserving food and playing with the animals.
In June the Ukrainian Minister of Education announced that Ukrainian schools could open in September if there was a bomb shelter. At first my school wanted to open a branch in Kyiv, where there was already a basement. This caused panic for both parents and me. I did not want to drive for more than an hour each way to work, during a war, with gas possibly in deficit. I also did not want to teach online for the next school year. The parents did not want to put their children on a bus into a big city during the war either. So the school renovated the basement of a nearby administration building, and I agreed to work with two grades so that the school could open in the village. The school teaches a bilingual curriculum - Ukrainian half the day, and English half the day. So I now teach from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with only a break on Monday and Friday when the children have PE class. I have lunch and recess duty every day. Before the war, there were thousands of native English teachers in Ukraine, but most followed their embassies’ recommendation to leave in February 2022, so now there are not enough English teachers.
I have one little girl whose father is in the military. She has needed special care this year as she has trouble controlling her emotions and fears about losing daddy. Another student has a Russian father and Ukrainian mom. They had a very difficult time doing the paperwork so that he could stay in Ukraine to be with them.
I’ve grown very close to the parents of my students, especially those who I’ve had since the war began. Together we have organized a food drive for snacks for soldiers at the front and a clothing drive for displaced families in Ukraine. We will start a new charity event soon. I have been working with a few women who each support groups of displaced families in Ukraine.
If you would like your money to go directly to families in need, just find me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/diane.baima/ and introduce yourself. Paypal does not charge any fees for money going to Ukraine. If you would prefer a larger organization, I would recommend the iMiracle Project or LGV (Live is the Greatest Value). I know the organizers of both of these non-profits.
The one called iMiracle Project is a Ukrainian Relief Fund helps the people of Ukraine by making everyday miracles happen. Its website is https://www.imiracleproject.org/
LGV provides direct help to Ukrainian defenders to fight for freedom against Russian invasion. Its website is https://www.lgvfund.com/
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