Safe Education During Martial Law: The Sumy Borderland Experience

Tatyana Deryugina
6 min readFeb 9, 2024

Tatyana’s note: this week’s article was originally written in Ukrainian by Antonina Kokhan, member of the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine. With her permission, it has been translated, edited (by me), and shared with you all. Olena Nesterenko is my cousin, and I am insanely proud of her and amazed by all that she has selflessly done since the war started. You can learn more about her and her partners’ foundation here.

The Dawn of War

On the afternoon of February 24, 2022, tanks and armored vehicles entered Sumy, a northern city of about 265,000 people nestled on the border of three regions of the aggressor country, the Russian Federation.

The people of Sumy bravely repelled the enemy on several fronts, delayed its advance on Kyiv, and found themselves under complete siege for many weeks. No one, including families with small children and elderly parents, was able to leave the city during this time. Everyone learned to survive in conditions of scarcity: food, electricity, water, medicine, and gasoline were all in short supply.

No one knew how long the armed aggression would last, but despite everything, the adults wanted to protect the children, to restore their confidence, smiles on their faces, interest in life, and hope for the future. Almost two years later, the struggle to help the children continues.

Education Amidst War: Disrupted

Anatoliy Nesterenko, Olena Nesterenko and Oleksandr Lemishko, founders of the Best Friends Charitable Foundation, worked from the very beginning to make sure the war doesn’t rob children of precious time for their development. Anatoliy is a seasoned lawyer and economist, while Olena is a professional lawyer. Oleksandr is an entrepreneur, educator, and sports supporter.

“From the very first hours of the enemy’s offensive, we began to act and decide on priority steps,” say Olena and Anatoliy Nesterenko. “We donated to the Armed Forces, to the needs of internally displaced persons. We bought medicines, food, thermoses, and textbooks for the needy. Everything was urgent and immediate. It was good that relatives from abroad and international foundations offered to help. We also felt that Sumy’s children needed special attention. We decided to organize extra classes for them, to give them psychological relief and to teach them social skills in difficult conditions. We rented a cellar, which also served as a simple shelter. We set up fiber optic Internet, which provided access to the network during power outages. And, of course, backup power sources and electricity. It was to us important to provide a safe place for the children.”

Meanwhile, in March of 2022, “green corridors” were opened to allow civilians to leave Sumy. The war caused educational partnerships between Sumy and many foreign countries to collapse, and the first to leave the city were foreign students who were studying at almost all of Sumy’s universities. It was likely this factor-foreigners held hostage by a full-scale invasion-that convinced Russia to allow safe passage out of the sieged city.

Not everyone used the evacuation corridors, and most Sumy residents decided to stay.

When Blackouts and Air Alerts Rule Your Day…

2022 was a year of blackouts as Russia launched constant attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. Generators were everywhere: in health care, education, consumer services, retail, and private homes.

“At first there were chaotic blackouts, but later there were hourly schedules of power supply by street, around which residents of high-rise buildings scheduled their whole lives,” says Olena Nesterenko. “Classes were constantly interrupted by air alerts. No classes were held in the shelters, and kids couldn’t make up the material they missed. Schooling resembled an endless marathon without preparation, goals, objectives, or results. Or rather, the results were disappointing, which upset all the parents.”

Nastya, 13 years old, shares her experience:

“For two years now, the war has prevented us from studying. Alerts go off several times a day. It is exhausting. Many schools have switched to online learning, while others have kids study online part of the time, leaving spare time for in-person classes to go to the shelter if necessary. The alerts can last several hours. We go down to the shelter, and the teacher who stopped in mid-sentence will not explain the material as he or she was supposed to. Sometimes we are tasked with learning all the material on our own because there was no full class during the day. This is the kind of learning we do. Video lessons and additional classes — lectures, practical courses — help us to learn new things, and we are very interested in them.”

“For example, our daughter’s classmates had not met offline for six months,” says Olena Nesterenko. “But we managed to create a different atmosphere in the rented premises.” At first, the children brought by their parents were in a state of depression: the stress, anxiety, and psychological strain they had experienced were obvious. But soon the isolation and stiffness in communication were replaced by a desire to talk, to learn, to share experiences and to achieve results.

An incredibly important aspect of the educational process is the spark of interest, inquisitiveness, initiative, and creativity of students. Despite not being educators themselves, the founders of the Foundation have an unwavering passion to inspire children to learn and are constantly looking for creative teachers and unique educational programs in various disciplines.

Even before the Foundation was formally established, the founders organized courses in Ukrainian, engaging English classes, and even got students excited about math. It is no exaggeration to say that everyone-adults and children alike-enjoyed the experience.

The inception of this center for supplementary education and psychological aid for children in Sumy sparked an idea, leading to the establishment of the Best Friends Charitable Foundation. Among its initiatives, the Foundation devised the program “ Bright Children are the Future of Ukraine,” encompassing various projects, including the ongoing success story “Education, Comfort, Security.” The Center for Additional Educational Training and Psychological Support in Sumy stands as tangible evidence of the Foundation’s impactful endeavors, nurturing and educating children with dedication and effectiveness.

Currently, 6-year-olds are being prepared for school. An elementary school teacher with many years of experience and a secret key to each potential “first grader” shared her curriculum, which impressed the founders of the Foundation, who are committed to educational know-how. Classes will begin soon.

Oleksandr Lemishko summarizes the situation bluntly. “We cannot afford to let preschoolers or the younger generation of 13- to 16-year-olds not study or improve themselves because of the war. Considering the significant number of combat casualties, migration processes, outflow of actual and potential human resources, in a year or two every sector of the Ukrainian economy will experience a lack of intellectual potential. While Ukraine is defending itself, the world is not standing still, it is evolving. Tomorrow Ukraine will want to deal with countries with advanced IT technologies and high-tech industries. What can we offer? The aggressor wants to set Ukraine back years or decades in its development, to destroy not only our present but also our future, so it is urgent to resist. And we start with the parents, many of whom mistakenly believe that these issues of education and upbringing are not relevant now because of the war.”

Empowering Communities: Collaborative Solutions

“Of course, today Ukraine as a whole, and we as a part of it, count on the help of high-income countries. But many Ukrainians do not like the conventional division of countries: first, second, third world-determined by the level of GDP, literacy, and the human development index-because our country’s place in it is not clearly defined,” Anatoliy Nesterenko emphasizes. “Ukraine should develop and not limit itself to conventional rankings. Also, relying solely on other countries for assistance while neglecting the importance of Ukrainians supporting each other would be an idealistic notion. Hence, we’re fostering communication among all interested parties to work together.”

Facing challenges alone is difficult, which is why the efforts of various philanthropists, including international donors, local businesses, and entrepreneurs, are coming together in one charitable foundation. The foundation addresses a range of needs, including education, psychological support, legal advice, medical care, sports development, housing, rehabilitation, and palliative care. Its leaders actively engage with embassies, present projects, initiate negotiations, and seek partnerships to make positive impacts. Despite an existing network of charity organizations, the Best Friends Charity Foundation pioneers unity in Sumy, especially amid martial law and active hostilities. The founders emphasize the urgency of charity work and conduct thorough problem assessments before taking action. They call upon authorities, businesses, and institutions to support the people of Sumy. Foreign partners and international donors are also encouraged to contribute to projects that benefit Ukrainians and defend democratic values worldwide.

Originally published at https://ukraineinsights.substack.com.

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