When the American Embassy in Ukraine advised citizens to evacuate the country on January 23rd, my parents quickly packed our bags and we fled to Romania.
This was two days after my school, the Pechersk School International of Kyiv (PSI), had gone online. Quickly, in one afternoon, I packed the necessities: clothes, books, and my computer. Everything else was left behind.
Surrounded by the bags we packed, I sat in the back of our car, confused and nervous—hopeful that this conflict would soon end—as I prepared to return to a country I hadn’t called home since I was seven.
Returning to Romania after six years (I’m originally from here, although I never attended AISB) is something I’ve had to adjust to, which at first was difficult. Being among the first wave of people who left, I wasn’t given the opportunity to say goodbye to my friends in person.
After the invasion started on February 24th, those who chose to (or had to) stay scurried to find plane and bus tickets or car rides to escape the country. And now, more than three months later, most everybody is dispersed, throughout almost every continent, continuing their studies online. To understand their perspectives and experiences, I interviewed several of my old teachers and colleagues.
The Teachers Affected
As more and more of the school’s community fled the country and faced uncertainty about the future, PSI Language & Literature Teacher Meridith Klein received an email, sent to the entire teaching staff: “At 3:10, tell your classes the school will be going into remote learning.”
Even though Ms. Klein and her husband have had experiences with living in conflict-heated countries before, due to how abrupt the situation had unfolded and concerns about the safety of their children, they decided to return to the United States—following the advice of the embassy.
“I felt so frustrated I wasn’t able to physically say goodbye to people, and tell them I’d support them in any way I could,” says Ms. Klein.
The airport was packed with citizens, children, parents and faculty from PSI. Klein remembers thinking how those moments before leaving for Dallas, Texas would probably be the last face-to-face interactions she’d have with students and colleagues. Strong emotions of fear, anger and frustration hovered above them, as people said their brief, final goodbyes.
“[I was a] miserable person to be around— angry, annoyed and scared because no one knew what would happen next,” Ms. Klein recalls.
Ms. Klein explains that she was skeptical of the American Embassy’s suggestions to return home, considering that the withdrawal was before the first attack (an attack that many people didn’t think would happen). Yet, she and her family settled back in at her parents’ house—one of the many challenges that came with the move.
Over the last few months, Ms. Klein watched her Zoom class get smaller and smaller as more students left, knowing those who remained felt lonelier and lonelier as the school year (and the war) dragged on. She says it was a painful occurrence to watch happen; and as motivation dwindled, teaching became more difficult. Joy for teaching was replaced with sadness—and anger about what this conflict was doing to Ukrainian citizens.
Ms. Klein remembers being at a supermarket when all of these emotions hit her. Everyone around her was going about their days, as “the world keeps spinning,” and she felt alone. Nobody knew what the people of Ukraine were going through and feeling; and as more and more people asked “How are you?” the harder it became to answer that question.
From personal experience, I understand that feeling of no one really understanding what’s happening or what you’re going though. It’s completely isolating.
“It took me a very long time to not feel guilty for laughing and feeling happy, while the people left in Kyiv are struggling and are worried for their own safety,” says Ms. Klein.
As the school year wraps up, Ms. Klein and her family are planning to move to Warsaw, Poland so she can teach at PSI’s satellite school in August. Since she had to say goodbye to many of her students online, being with some former students and colleagues is somewhat of a relief. The decision is also filled with uncertainty, as she knows it won’t be like going back to the school she once knew. “I don’t know how I’d feel attending and walking through those halls without the people that were there the last time I was there.”
Faced with the same uncertainty, Rona Luz Duran, a mathematics teacher at PSI, had a similar journey to Ms. Klein—receiving that same email and quickly gathering her most important belongings to flee the country. “I wasn’t able to say goodbye to my friends, students or neighbors either,” Ms. Rona explains. And the paranoia she felt towards the situation grew by the day.
Now situated in the Philippines after having moved three times since the beginning of the war (Turkey at first, then the United States), she shares her irritation with how the online schedule affected her and forced her to temporarily adapt to the new environment.
“As I thought Turkey was more stable in weather, I hadn’t packed any of my winter clothes with me and just took my necessities and left; I didn’t expect it to be a long stay,” she explains.
As Ms. Rona moved to her final destination, she described her teaching situation as “awkward.” Due to the time differences, she had to wake up at 4am to teach, and would often continue with meetings until late into the day.
“While you guys were thinking about which new schools to get into, us teachers were doing the same thing in regard to our jobs,” Ms. Rona says.
Thankfully, she was able to secure a job for next school year at an international school here in Romania, and looks forward to some stability again. She says that between fleeing her home, worrying about her students and colleagues, moving and teaching/saying goodbye over Zoom, she’s ready for this school year to end.
“It was hard to keep the students motivated,” she adds. She just hopes that next school year will be in-person and that the war can finally come to an end.
The Students’ Perspective
Aside from the teachers, affected students have also been impacted emotionally in different ways. Ukrainian PSI student Maya was forced to leave her birthplace, and shared the emotional and psychological implications of leaving her home.
She and her family left Ukraine on the 13th of February: one week prior to Russia’s invasion. And much like the teachers interviewed, her emotions ranged from fear to panic at the airport.
“My life has changed significantly in the past few months,” she says. “I didn’t expect to leave everything behind. I felt at the beginning that we’d come back very soon.”
As many Ukrainians didn’t believe until the last moment that a real conflict could be possible, Maya and her family were sure it wouldn’t last very long. So she remained online with PSI as they temporarily moved to Spain.
Maya felt lucky that she knew her classmates and the teachers while online, and that she already knew how to learn online because of the pandemic. “It wasn’t that hard to adapt to another online schedule; we’ve been doing this for so long.”
But as time went on, her parents made the decision to move the family to the Netherlands, which is where Maya will begin the next school year (at the time of writing, she was applying to the International School of Amsterdam for in-person learning). And the next challenge will begin: changing her community of classmates and teachers which have provided some sort of consistency.
When discussing this with her, I realized that for the students and I who were forced to return back to our home countries, we’ve had a very different experience. Not only has Maya had to leave everything behind, but she’s had to adjust to a new country, a new language, and a completely new environment while not knowing when she could return.
Currently back in his home country of Denmark, former PSI student Christian shares his experience leaving Ukraine and returning “home.”
“I didn’t know what to say at first; I was so lost in the news. I felt as though I was watching something unreal,” he exclaims.
After arriving back in his hometown, Christian couldn’t believe where he was and described it as an “unknown trip” back home. Leaving slightly earlier than Maya, Christian shares that those feelings of panic and fear were not yet apparent in the airport, yet it could still be sensed.
When asked about his plans for next year, he strongly suggested his family had no definite plan for the years to come. “Initially we were going to stick with PSI until the end of the year online,” but when the situation continued to worsen, “my parents knew staying online wouldn’t be an option and we started looking for schools.”
After many school interviews and weeks online, Christian began attending a school in-person. During this time he shares that he felt overwhelmed with the amount of information being released from the conflict and was anxious about when (or if) everything would return to normal.
“I wasn’t able to say goodbye in person to many friends,” says Christian. “ I didn’t even get a chance to visit the campus before leaving.”
After finishing with the transition to the in-person campus, Christian says that a lot of students asked questions about his leaving Ukraine and what was happening in his former home. “I didn’t know how to feel,” he explains. “I filled them in the best I could.”
Fortunately for Christian, time has allowed him to acclimate to his new school, but he still wonders if he’ll ever see Kyiv in person again. “I’m hopeful for the future, yet I really don’t know how this situation will turn out.”
The Future of PSI
Nobody knows what will happen to the Pechersk School International in the coming years, whether the campus will prevail and start up again or shut down completely. But according to PSI’s Director Rachel Caldwell, this school year is ending with 224 students still online and 307 at other schools. Only 13 students have withdrawn during the last few months.
As for the next school year, Ms. Caldwell says that the plan is to reopen PSI’s Kyiv campus for supervised online learning, but “news will be shared as soon as it becomes a viable option.” They are also opening a temporary satellite campus in Warsaw, in partnership with the American School of Warsaw (ASW). This collaboration will allow PSI’s online learners to continue their education while gaining an important face-to-face component by running alongside ASW.
Personally, as a student speaking, working online at first seemed like a great option, as we all knew how to do it after Covid lockdowns. But this time, we weren’t all in the same situation. The war brought new fears and anxieties for each of us— and forced many of us to scatter across the globe.
Each member of the PSI community has had our own personal experiences and feelings about the last few months, and it’s impossible to share what it’s truly felt like with someone who wasn’t there to experience it. And now as the school year is coming to an end, a whole new batch of emotions are popping up.
Many of our Ukrainian community members are returning to Kyiv. Others will continue to learn online from various locations. Some will learn alongside students at the CEESA school in Warsaw. And many, like me, will stay at our new schools, with our belongings left behind in war-torn Ukraine.
As for Ms. Caldwell, next year will be a transition for her as well, as she will join me at AISB for the 2023-24 school year when she’ll replace Mr. Peter Welch.
“I will be heartbroken to leave PSI,” she says. “This extremely difficult year has made my determination to do everything I can for our school even stronger.”
She says she feels unbreakable ties to the community: her colleagues, the board members and parent group; “and, of course, [the] students.” That being said, she is looking forward to settling down in Bucharest and making it her new home.
For me, it’s been confirmed that I will be here until the end of high school. I’m excited for the opportunities that will arise in the following years and returning to my roots, although I feel a constant longing for my old home of Ukraine. I don’t think that will stop any time soon.