Guest Column
How a St. Petersburg author helped a Ukrainian teacher’s aide and her roommate escape | Column
Fulbright Scholars combined their skills to help Ukrainian refugees.
Oksana and Marina
Oksana and Marina [ Courtesy of Michael Sampson ]
Published March 28, 2022

I had been tracking the progress of Oksana and Marina for three days as they made their way west across war-torn Ukraine. After their bus came under fire from Russian soldiers, they had moved to a train. The train also narrowly missed bombs from a Russian plane. I breathed a sigh of relief when they entered Poland. I had met Oksana, a teacher’s aide when I did an author visit to her school in 2019.

Michael Sampson
Michael Sampson [ Provided ]

When Russian forces neared Kyiv, I texted and urged her to come to Poland where I could help her and her roommate, Marina — but they were reluctant to leave their families. Everything changed one morning when they made their way out of a bomb shelter to retrieve food from their apartment, only to find that a Russian rocket had destroyed it. Now they were nearing the end of their trek to safety.

Soon their ordeal was over, and a sobbing and exhausted Oksana falls into my arms. They had been traveling for 35 hours with no sleep, as the train was standing room only. Two weeks have passed, and they are moving on from crowded Poland. Oksana has decided to join relatives who escaped to Latvia. Marina received a visa to England.

My life was very different six months ago when I arrived in Dnipro, Ukraine, as a Fulbright Scholar. I enjoyed my visits to Dnipro’s public schools, where I read my children’s books to students and did demonstrations using techniques to teach English to speakers of other languages. I interacted with other Fulbright Scholars. We grew close but were destined to grow even closer in late January when the State Department, concerned with intelligence that predicted a Russian invasion, evacuated us to Warsaw.

On Feb. 24, Russia launched war against Ukraine. Bombs were heard and felt in Kyiv and Kharkiv, and Ukrainian citizens had to run for their lives. We volunteered for a new role — helping Ukrainians cross the border into Poland. We met together and brainstormed how we might help.

Fulbrighter Larysa Kurylas, the architect who designed the Washington, D.C., Holodomor Memorial to the Stalin-induced famine in Ukraine, used her Ukrainian language skills at the Ukrainian House in Warsaw, helping refugees translate documents into English.

John Vsetecka, a Fulbright colleague from Michigan, highlighted the crisis of his American friend’s Ukrainian wife and their new baby on NPR and CNN, giving human faces to the developing refugee story.

Tamara Kozyckyj, a Fulbright Scholar working with the Ministry of Health of Ukraine, shared that a critical need for injured Ukrainian soldiers and civilians was for bleed kits, as uncontrolled bleeding is the number one cause of preventable death. With Tamara’s help, we raised money via the American College of Surgeons and sent hundreds of bleed kits to Ukraine.

Our work is heartbreaking. The people we meet are in such dismal situations. They are mostly women and children, with brothers or husbands or fathers left behind to fight the invading Russians. Many have no suitcases, just plastic sacks with all their possessions stuffed in. They suffer from shock and depression.

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Kids in South Africa sent their artwork to support kids in Ukraine.
Kids in South Africa sent their artwork to support kids in Ukraine. [ Courtesy of Michael Sampson ]

We do our best to relieve their fears and connect them with local Polish resources. I go to shelters where families live and talk with children. As a children’s book author, kids are my world. I share art that kids in South Africa sent me to give them. I find the children, even living in a tent city, to be happy. I laugh with them, but inside I am crying.

Vladimir Putin’s war is now just over a month old. It has evolved from a military war, which the Russian army is losing, to horrific attacks on cities and the buildings people are sheltering in. Putin seeks to use terror as a weapon to conquer Ukraine.

The world needs to stand up to him. Far too many Ukrainians have already died. I remember the Ukrainian children in the classes I taught in Dnipro and worry. War has no place in the 21st century, but Putin now joins Hitler, Stalin, Lenin and Napoleon as leaders who led their people into wars with no regard for human life. We can do better than this, and we must.

Michael Sampson is a professor at St. John’s University and a Fulbright Scholar to Ukraine. He previously taught at the St. Petersburg campus of the University of South Florida. He now splits his time between his Treasure Island home and Manhattan. A prolific author of New York Times best-selling books for children, his latest book, “Armadillo Antics,” comes out in April.