Silver lining: Vibrant Polish exchange program emerges from dark Ukraine war

Twelve months ago today, Russia invaded Ukraine, beginning what has since become one of Europe’s most brutal wars since World War II. Over the last year, St. Louis U. High has seen the impacts of the crisis firsthand, with the invasion dealing blows to Global Ed’s Russian program and allowing students to serve Ukrainian refugees in Poland.

When the invasion began on Feb. 24, 2022, the initial reaction of most in the St. Louis U. High community mirrored that of the rest of the world: absolute shock. Despite the evidence that Russia had been amassing troops at its border with Ukraine, many—from policy experts to armchair observers—dismissed the aggression as little else than a political bargaining chip. With the first shots fired, it became abundantly clear that this was far from the case.

“My first reaction, beyond anything Global Ed-wise or school-wise, I was just incredibly shocked,” said Russian teacher and Director of Global Education Rob Chura. “I think pretty much everyone was. The thing that it took me a while to get over is just the gravity of what was happening. Being a lot closer to the situation than most Westerners, for me, it was just really unbelievable.”

art | Will Blaisdell

Aside from the potentially staggering human cost of the war, the invasion had a ripple effect in the SLUH community. Home to a long-thriving Russian program, SLUH’s Department of Global Ed had previously planned to reinstate its annual summer trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, which had been a fixture of the Global Ed offerings for over two decades prior to the pandemic. These hopes were immediately dashed last February, as sanctions, travel restrictions, and safety concerns meant that the Russia trip would be indefinitely postponed, with no clear replacement in sight. 

Global Ed began searching for a replacement during Spring Break of 2022, when Chura visited Poland both to network with Jesuit schools in the nation, and to contribute to the ongoing efforts to mitigate the Ukrainian refugee crisis in Poland.

“Before Feb. 24, my plans were that we were moving ahead with ideally being able to revive a lot of our summer exchange programs, and going back to St. Petersburg and resuming our over 20-year exchange with our Russian school in St. Petersburg,” said Chura. “Once it became clear that was never going to happen, I was already scheduled to go to Poland to see our partner schools over there. And the idea was for us to see if maybe we could come up with some kind of loose partnership, but nothing of the scale that it is right now. By luck, I was already scheduled to go over there.”

After a week of productive discussion with partner schools in Gdynia and Krakow, and of impactful and profound experiences of service and interaction with refugees, it became clear that Poland was a more-than-adequate substitution for the Russian program. 

“When I was there, I was able to see the situation firsthand, and to help out with the wave and flood of refugees that were coming in,” said Chura. “While I was there sharing some of the experiences that I had with my Polish colleagues at the Jesuit schools, together we realized we were thinking, ‘let’s do something together, let’s find a way to create a project that is going to be mutually beneficial to both of our communities, as well as serving this huge need out there with the Ukraine refugee situation.’”

From Chura’s trip to Poland in March, plans were quickly formulated for a group of rising seniors to visit Poland for 16 days in June, where they would stay with Polish host families. In Poland, students would have the opportunity to interact directly with Ukrainian refugees in addition to cultural immersion. 

In particular, the eight SLUH students who visited last summer provided manual labor in a refugee shelter, while also providing English lessons and simply interacting with teenage refugees.

“At first, it was a little weird. We’re Russian students, and we’re going to Poland, where they speak Polish,” said senior Peter Roither. “But after being there, and certainly as we got closer to it, it definitely felt like the more natural of the moves that Mr. Chura could’ve made.”

“When we worked with the kids in the summer, just hearing them say that it was nice to forget that they’re refugees for a little while (was impactful),” said Chura.

Following a successful trip, a group of Polish students stayed with host families in St. Louis for the entirety of the first quarter of this current school year. Five of the seniors who first visited Poland in the summer opted to return for their Senior Projects last month, allowing them to further develop relationships with their friends abroad.

Through what amounts to over a month abroad, these five seniors returned home with a greater awareness of the situation in Ukraine, and a newfound desire to stay updated with happenings related to the war.

“It’s become much more of something that I think about and give an effort to keep up with knowing,” said senior Leo Smith, who went on both trips. “I want to be in the loop because it affects people that I care about. I want to be more informed, and I want to help. I think more people should help, and anyone can donate.”

“To me personally, it means the world,” said Roither, who also returned in January. “I’ve gained a lot of perspective from not only the Polish people, but from the Ukrainians, and formed friendships which I will hopefully continue to nurture throughout my years in college. It’s wonderful getting to know these people and getting to keep up with those relationships.”

World Religions and Russian classes have also recently participated in Zoom meetings with some of the Ukrainian refugees who the seniors had worked with in Poland, adding yet another layer to the fruitful relationship between SLUH and its Polish partner schools. While the partnership only emerged following the outbreak of war, it has since provided a chance for profound cultural experiences.

“It’s nice that we can be involved and we can do something positive,” said Chura. “But it’s a situation we’d much rather not be having to help out with. If there’s something positive about this, it’s that our kids get a chance to see where their skills as Russian speakers can be useful. More than that, it’s just their skills as human beings.”

As the war drags into its second year with no clear end in sight, many seniors who went to Poland are hopeful to continue supporting the Ukrainian cause from the United States. Aid is primarily available through monetary donations; as such, most efforts are through fundraisers.

In particular, Smith is planning to donate all of his earnings from his band’s upcoming concerts to United 24, a charity aiming to provide assistance to Ukraine.

“I just felt like I should be helping more,” said Smith. “I’m not in Poland anymore and I’m not with Ukrainians, so there’s not much I can do from over here except donate. It’s kind of the main way that I can help, and it’s a great way that anyone and everyone can help.”

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