You could say that retired teacher Oksana Kulynych goes back to Ukraine every day.
When not watching the grim news, she gives presentations to students so they can learn about the country now involved in a horrific military invasion from Russia.
Kulynych is a Ukrainian-American born in New York City to parents who were refugees during World War II from what was then Soviet Ukraine.
Through them, she knows a lot about war and displacement.
She visits high schools and colleges to educate students about the roots of Ukraine’s beauty, and about its suffering. She speaks about the 1932 mass genocide in the country, and today’s invasion.
“I talk about the history of Russian aggression. I talk about my cousins escaping (now). I talk about women and children leaving, and men who are staying behind to fight,” said Kulynych, a member of the United Federation of Teachers who taught special education in the Bronx for decades and served 10 years as director of the School of Ukrainian Studies.
The students want to learn more, she said. They ask what they can do to help as they witness the first military invasion against a sovereign European nation since World War II.
“I tell them, become active in your government. We can do that here; we have a democracy. I tell them, when you see an injustice, when you see wrong, remember that one person can make a difference. Speak out when you see that,” Kulynych said.
Panagiota Arenas, Yonkers Federation of Teachers, said Kulynych’s visit “hit home” for students. “We’re studying WWII and they were able to make comparisons. They see how the policy of appeasement didn’t work with Hitler. It’s the same with Putin.”
Students see the severe harm of totalitarian rule, autocracy and censorship. Between this war and the pandemic, they are living history, Arenas said.
“It’s atrocious and monstrous what he (Putin) is doing not only to Ukraine, but also to his own people in Russia,” she said.
Students collect medical supplies and boots for Kulynych to deliver. They write letters to American officials, urging them to do more, said Arenas.
What is happening in Ukraine is a terrifying example of how totalitarianism can grow unchecked, Kulynych said. In a span of recent years, Russia has illegally invaded Chechnya, then Georgia, then Crimea in eastern Ukraine, then Syria.
“Nobody stopped them, and they just kept getting stronger and stronger,” Kulynych said. “We need to recognize the signs to stop genocides from happening.
“I’m grateful for the journalists who are bringing this story to the world,” she said, her voice choking with tears as she spoke of several who have been killed.
In addition to school visits, she has organized workshops for teachers and presented at conferences with the National Council on Social Studies. She has taught about Holodomor, a man-made famine from 1932 to 1933 under Stalin’s rule.
Her own family history is a snapshot of a country that has been under siege again and again. Her maternal grandparents fled Ukraine when Russian communists invaded.
The family headed to Germany, ended up at a displaced persons camp for four years, and then came to the U.S. Her uncle was taken by Soviets and sent to a forced labor camp in Siberia.
Her father fought in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, battling Soviet Russians and Nazi Germans. He somehow found his mother and sister in Germany, and they all came to America.
Kulynych’s parents, Jaroslaw and Maria, met at a dance at St. George’s Ukrainian Catholic Church in New York City. Together they raised six children.
“On Saturdays we went to Ukrainian school, to study language, culture and history,” Kulynych said.
She has been to visit Ukraine twice – once in the 1970s when it was still under Communist control, and again in 2005, with her two children, 14 years after independence had been declared.
The first visit was challenging, she said. “When I came back to the U.S. I wanted to kiss the ground here because we have freedom here.”
- The NYSUT Disaster Relief Fund is collecting funds for humanitarian agencies helping the people of Ukraine.
- Share My Lesson, a free resource site from the American Federation of Teachers, has resources for educators on teaching about the Ukraine crisis.