‘We all want to live a normal life’: Students at this Ukrainian school look toward a future past the war

For young people still in school, there are few sweeter words than “summer vacation.” But for students in Ukraine, these are challenging times. The school year for public school kids just wrapped up last week, and their whole educational experience — for Ukrainian students and their teachers — has fundamentally changed. The World’s Daniel Ofman reports from the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.

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Marta Trush is a teacher at Lviv’s school number 27, teaching eighth and ninth grade English. After reflecting on the school year, Trush said the war robbed her students of their childhood.

“When I was at that age, I don’t know what war is. I don’t even check the news. I don’t know what is different planes, different rockets, but they now, in their age, know what is war, what is when our enemies killed our parents,” she said.

The tragedies of war are not unfamiliar to Trush.

When The World last spoke with her — about six months after Russia’s full-scale invasion — Trush was mourning the loss of her cousin, who died while serving in Ukraine’s armed forces. Her uncle died fighting as well.

When The World met English teacher Marta Trush in 2022, she was mourning the loss of her cousin, who died while serving in Ukraine’s armed forces. Today, she says she copes with her losses by focusing on her students and ensuring they know they’re safe and supported.Daniel Ofman/The World

Trush copes with her losses by focusing on her students and ensuring they know they’re safe.

“They can cry or be sad, but we go to them and hug,” she said. “That’s the right way because when we talk with them about the war, it can be very hard for them.”

Trush said that her students face a variety of challenges: Some of their parents are away from home and serving in the military. Some of them have lost loved ones. And some of the students are internally displaced and have moved west to Lviv because of the war.

One of those students in Trush’s class is 14-year-old David Ilyin, from Kharkiv, in northeastern Ukraine.

“Almost in the start of the war, maybe in the first of March, I was already in Lviv. We didn’t have any relatives anywhere else, abroad or in different cities of Ukraine. So, we just came to Lviv because our friends were here,” Ilyin said. “So, we didn’t have any choice.”

The World’s Daniel Ofman speaks to student David Ilyin, who moved to Lviv from Kharkiv a few months after the full-scale invasion began in Ukraine. He said many students don’t want to discuss the war because they’re seeking a sense of normalcy.Volodymyr Solohub/The World

Other students in the class are from places like Kramatorsk and Mariupol — two cities in Eastern Ukraine that have been ravaged by war. But the students say that even in Lviv, far in western Ukraine, there are still security concerns because of Russian rocket and drone attacks.

“It often can be air raid. So, we have to go to our bomb shelter. And it can be really loud, and it’s not really comfortable to be here,” said student Olena Aftanas.

Another student, Karoline Nikiruy, explained what happens once the class moves to the bomb shelter.

“Sometimes we continue our learning, but sometimes we finish it because with us in our bomb shelter is [a] primary school, and a little child are very loud sometimes, so it’s hard to quiet them,” she said.

Student Karoline Nikiruy told The World’s Daniel Ofman that she wants to stay in Ukraine if she can but is considering attending college in Germany if the war does not end soon.Volodymyr Solohub/The World

Nikiruy said that at school, the war comes up in conversation here and there, but students usually try to avoid the subject.

“I would like to talk about the war because I want to know what happens there, but some children are just not want to talk about the war because it’s very painful,” she said.

David Ilyin, the student from Kharkiv, said many don’t want to talk about the war because they’re looking for a sense of normalcy.

“We don’t talk about it much because we all understand the menace that is above us, and we don’t want to remember this because we all want to live [a] normal life, so we don’t want to remember about it a lot,” he said.

But it’s hard to avoid the subject, especially when students think about their lives after high school.

The World’s Daniel Ofman talks to eighth and ninth grade students in a Lviv classroom about their experiences as the war in Ukraine continues.Volodymyr Solohub/The World

Karoline Nikiruy said she wants to go to university to be a programmer or a scientist.

“I really want to stay in Ukraine because this is my country. I lived here all my life, but because of the war, maybe if I need to, I would leave,” she said. “If I leave, I would go to Germany.”

Nikiruy believes she could get a good education in Germany and later return to Ukraine.

But, for the boys in the classroom, military service is something that they must think about.

One student said he looked forward to serving in the military, but that was not the general consensus among the boys in the class. 

“I’m thinking that if the war will finish, I won’t go abroad, I will stay in Ukraine,” Ilyin said. “But if the war will not finish, and the military service is 100%, I know I don’t want to serve in the army. I don’t want to be a soldier. So, I want to work, and I will go and study abroad. This is what the situation is.”

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