By Kevin Haas
Rock River Current
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ROCKFORD — Alla Staschuk shows off a picture of her husband, Serhiy, clutching his military rifle while standing outside a field of corn in Ukraine.
The field is gone now, she said, burned to the ground by occupying Russian forces. It’s been five months since Staschuk and her son, Sasha, have seen Serhiy, who is fighting in the Ukrainian military. But they stay in touch with him as best they can.
“It’s been very hard for me and my son,” she said Tuesday, speaking in the limited English she knows.
Staschuk and her son are among nearly 20 people, mostly teens, from Rockford’s Ukrainian sister city of Brovary spending 11 days here as a brief respite from the war. All of the teens’ fathers are serving in the Ukrainian military.
“We want this week to be a week of rest for you,” Mayor Tom McNamara said during a welcoming event Tuesday at Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens. “We want this week to be a week you can find some happiness and some joy in some normal activities, and just know that you are loved by people far and wide.”
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City officials asked the mayor’s office in Brovary for ways it could help, and the Ukrainian sister city requested Rockford to host the teens as a means to provide reprieve from the stressful environment they have lived in since late February.
Rockford is the first U.S. city to create this opportunity for Ukrainian teens, city officials said.
In spring, Ukrainian troops drove Russian forces out of Brovary, which is about 12 miles east of the capital of Kyiv. However, Russian troops left behind mines and other traps after being forced out, according to The Guardian. Staschuk spoke of the same dangers.
The teens here in Rockford have experienced the realities of blaring air raid sirens in their home country, said 16-year-old Vladyslava Uyzhga. Here they’ll get to ice skate, wake board, play volleyball and soccer and otherwise enjoy themselves.
“Our city is not under occupation right now but it was, and that’s why we just try to enjoy every moment that we’ve gotten here,” Uyzhga said. “We’re really happy that we got this opportunity. Just a few days out here it’s really fun and kind of like a fresh air.”
Uyzhga, who studied English in school, was called upon to serve as an impromptu translator after the official translator was pulled away. She interpreted local dignitaries’ messages of support to her fellow Ukrainian teenagers during the welcoming event, and she translated her peers’ words of thanks back to Rockford.
Several of the teen visitors spoke in their native language Wednesday to thank Rockford for its support, and Uyzhga translated those messages in English as best she could.
“I want to thank everyone who stands with Ukraine and who supported us,” she said. “It’s great to hear that everyone is supporting us and giving us money and everything else that helps us. We really appreciate it.”
The city, in partnership with the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, Kids Around the World and The Community Foundation of Illinois, launched the Brovary Relief Fund in March to raise money and gather supplies for our sister city.
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You can still donate to the Brovary Relief Fund through cfnil.org or kidsaroundtheworld.com.
There are 17 kids and four adults here from Brovary, including two moms, a translator and a Brovary government worker, according to Elena Seitz, vice president and programs director for Ukrainian-American Association of College Educators. The group is staying at the Rockford Christian dormitories while in the city.
Seitz said she hopes this visit sets a good example for the teens and other people in Ukraine to move forward after the war.
“This young generation will grow up and understand how you can build your society,” she said. “How you can live with open hearts and arms, and how you can donate your time and money to make somebody else happy, too.”
Uyzhga, who also speaks Russian but has chosen not to since the invasion, thanked Rockford for its hospitality and its support to the people of Ukraine.
“We just try to enjoy every moment that we have here,” she said. “This opportunity is once-in-a-lifetime.”
This article is by Kevin Haas. Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @KevinMHaas or Instagram @thekevinhaas.