Iryna Valienko hasn’t been speaking or writing English for very long, but was able to express her feelings about the war in her home country in a heartfelt essay and presentation.
By Ronni Newton
Iryna Valienko, who moved to West Hartford from Ukraine three years ago and is now a student in Joe Viola’s Advanced ESL class with the town, and her fellow classmates are amazed at how she has learned to share her thoughts both in her speaking and writing.
She’s now working as a substitute teacher in West Hartford – not only putting her language skills to use but also earning money to help support family and friends still in Ukraine.
When Ukraine was attacked in 2022, Valienko, with the encouragement of Viola and her classmates, wrote the following essay, said Caren Dickman, Adult Education program facilitator for West Hartford Public Schools. The class watched video clips and read news articles to learn about the war. “Most importantly, they supported her as she expressed her personal feelings,” Dickman said.
“Today is War in Ukraine, a peaceful country. Russia attacked my country on the 24th of February 2022 at 4 a.m. They are killing our children and ordinary people. They are destroying our hospitals, schools, kindergartens and other buildings where people live. Russian soldiers are bombing our big cities, towns and many villages.
“On the morning of the 1st of March, the first day of Spring, they ‘congratulated’ us with some bombs which were dropped in Kharkiv. As a result, a residential building was destroyed – 8 people died and 8 people were injured. Kharkiv is a beautiful big city where I studied for five years at the University. When I ask my friends who live there how they are, they answer me – ‘we are alive.’
“I lived in Kyiv. My husband’s parents, many friends, and my children’s classmates are living there. Some of them are staying at home or in shelters or in the underground/metro.
“Many people in the world understand, sympathize and help us, thanks for it. But they don’t feel it. Only now I feel what is war because it’s in my country. My heart is bursting into millions of parts. This pain is inside me. I can’t eat, I can’t read, I can’t learn – I can’t do anything. All thoughts are only about this awful war. I can’t sleep and very often I cry. My nervous system is ruined.
“Unfortunately, leaders in Europe have forgotten the Second World War if they allow war in the center of Europe.
“I want to add Belarussia joined Russia and as of today two countries are attacking Ukraine.
“Now, today, every minute Ukraine is being raped, but all the world is watching and sympathizing.”
Dickman said Valienko told her that during the early months of the war she lost sleep, didn’t eat well, binge-watched the news, and withdrew as she worried about her friends and family still in Ukraine. The one thing that didn’t change was that she continued to attend her ESL class.
“Throughout the year, Joe [Viola’s] class continued to read the news, watch video clips and talk about the war,” Dickman said. “To mark the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine, Iryna gave a heartfelt presentation about why Poland became the central gravity of the Ukraine war.”
Viola said Valienko “awed” her classmates. “Wow, did Iryna’s essay ever capture the attention and empathy of her classmates,” he said. “They all wore blue and yellow clothes or displayed the colors of Ukrainian flag to offer their support. Most importantly, they allowed her the space to speak and explain her take on the history that preceded this conflict. They responded in silent empathy.”
West Hartford’s ESL program currently supports adult learners from more than 40 countries throughout the world – all of whom are now West Hartford residents and are enrolled in the program to learn English. The other students who have been in class with Valienko come from a variety of countries, including Brazil, France, Israel, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. Several are also from China, but their own country’s relationship with Russia hasn’t impacted their support for their classmate, according to Dickman.
Valienko told Dickman that her husband eventually helped her see that remaining strong is the best way to demonstrate her support of her family and friends in Ukraine. She’s now a substitute teacher in West Hartford Public Schools, and sending money back to her home country to offer financial support, too, Dickman said.
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