Quigley visits Ukrainian Village school where one-third of student body fled war in Ukraine
St. Nicholas Cathedral School in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village fields daily inquiries from parents fleeing the European country as Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine, according to school officials.
When Oksana Vasylenko fled her native Ukraine with her now-3-year-old son and their family dog, her son cried every day for his father, who joined Ukrainian forces fighting against Russia’s invasion.
“Now, it’s ok,” she said. “He understands his father is only a picture on the phone.”
Vasylenko’s son is among 70 refugee students — accounting for more than a third of the school’s student body — attending St. Nicholas Cathedral School in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village. The school fields daily inquiries from parents fleeing the European country, said Anna Cirilli, the school’s principal.
Most students gathered Thursday inside the school’s gym indicated they are from Ukraine or have relatives from there. Handmade posters stating, “Pray for Ukraine,” and “Peace in Ukraine,” lined the school’s gym as students sang traditional Ukrainian songs for Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., who visited the school.
He also visited Ukraine earlier this year and met with President Volodymyr Zelensky. Quigley is co-chair of the Congressional Ukraine Caucus, a bipartisan group that aims to build stronger relations between the U.S. and Ukraine.
Students presented him with a loaf of bread and salt, a symbol of friendship and hospitality in Ukraine.
Quigley told the students and parents gathered Thursday that his office wants to help them. One parent said she’s waited about five months to receive her work permit.
He apologized for the delays and said his staff would look into her case. He also said President Joe Biden’s administration was looking into expediting the process going forward.
“We have to expedite that process for all those in similar situations,” he said. “...When I meet people coming from other countries, particularly under extraordinary circumstances, they want to work, they want to contribute, they want to support their families, they want to do what we all want to do.”
Vasylenko, who arrived to Chicago in March, said she’s also waiting for her work permit. She reads the news every morning, hoping to see a sign that it’s safe to return to Ukraine.
“I want to read the news that war is stopped, but, no, (it) continues, continues, continues,” she said.
Vasylenko, 29, came to Chicago because her husband knew someone who lived in the suburbs. She said she wishes refugees like herself could get transit cards to help them until they get adjusted.
She’s surviving financially on what her husband sends her from Ukraine until she’s able to apply for jobs in Chicago. She would like to enroll in college courses because she was an attorney in Ukraine. For now, she’s living without health insurance.
The war in Ukraine, which started in February, continues as Russian President Vladimir Putin this week annexed four regions, according to the Associated Press. The ongoing conflict has prompted millions to flee Ukraine.
As of Oct. 5, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services had received more than 142,000 requests to sponsor Ukrainians as part of a program called “Uniting for Ukraine,” which allows individuals to live in the U.S. for two years. There were 18,047 requests from the Chicago metropolitan area, which had the second highest number of requests across the country.
More than 64,000 Ukrainians have so far entered the U.S. through that program, and an additional 99,000 Ukrainians have entered the country outside of that program, according to USCIS. Some Ukrainians, like Vasylenko, are living in the U.S. under the designation of temporary protected status.
Before the war, the Chicago metropolitan area had the second largest immigrant population — about 26,000 people — from Ukraine, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
Cirilli, the principal, said the school is almost near capacity. They’ve accepted students from Ukraine, hoping the community would provide enough donations to fill in the gaps for those who can’t afford the tuition. The school also created an online wishlist for items to help the newly arrived students.
The school added counselors, a Ukrainian social worker and had students go through a summer bootcamp to help them adjust to the English language and cultural differences, Cirilli said.
“Some have sort of decided that they’re going to stay forever whereas others still have hope of going back to Ukraine,” Cirilli said. “The start of the school year was really hard for the older kids, and we weren’t really thinking about it in the sense that like it was confirming that they’re here for the school year.”
During Quigley’s visit, he tried to motivate the students, encouraging them to think of ways that they can start to change the world as children. He also told them about how his friend Barack Obama overcame election losses before winning the White House.
“You’re going to learn more from overcoming your setbacks than your victories sometimes,” Quigley said. “You’re going to learn when things don’t go so well.”
Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.