This LA School Is Helping Ukrainian Refugee Kids Maintain Their Culture
It was the first day of school one recent Saturday at Ridna Shkola of Los Angeles, a Saturday school that has taught Ukrainian culture, language and history to generations of Ukrainian American children growing up in L.A.
A handful of teachers and parent volunteers went over binders and books as they watched the clock. The kids would arrive any minute — and this year, there would be lots of them.
“Last year we had about 20 kids, this year we have about 45,” said parent committee chair Katya Zhylka. “I think about a third of them are coming from Ukraine.”
Until recently, most of the students who came to Ridna Shkola were the children and grandchildren of immigrants like Zhylka, who left Ukraine years ago and whose daughter was born in the U.S.
But this year is different, as Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russia’s invasion have been settling in L.A.
“It’s not easy moving to another country, but I think when you are moving under circumstances like war, it is even harder,” Zhylka said. “So I just want them to feel welcomed, safe."
Before long, the first families began arriving, greeted by staff and volunteers with a hearty “pryvit!” (“hello”) as they trickled in.
Some kids carried backpacks and notebooks. They ranged from preschool to middle school age, most of them on the younger side. Some were dressed in traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirts, or in blue and gold, the colors of the Ukrainian flag. One little girl bounced in excitedly in a poofy pink party dress, her mom in tow.
The school is housed in a few small classrooms above the Ukrainian Culture Center on Melrose Avenue. Once everyone arrived, parents and children went downstairs and gathered in the Culture Center’s main hall to review school business and sing the Ukrainian national anthem.
Afterwards, the kids shuffled upstairs, most of them followed by parents snapping photos.
After a few hugs and some tears, classes began. In the biggest classroom, where the 6- and 7-year-olds sat, teacher Laryssa Golocach held up a large picture book with a map of Ukraine and began her lesson.
A few children raised their hands, and with that, the school year at Ridna Shkola was underway.
‘We Support Each Other’
Downstairs in the main hall of the cultural center, several parents chatted and checked their phones as they waited. They sat at tables brightly decorated for a wedding later that night.
Anna, a young mother, waited for her two kids, ages 9 and 6.
“I came to Los Angeles four months ago with my family from Ukraine,” said Anna, who didn’t want her last name used because she fears for the safety of relatives back home.
She told a harrowing story of fleeing Kyiv with her husband and children in the early hours of Feb. 24, when the Russian airstrikes began. They made it to Austria, then to L.A. a few months later.
At first they didn’t know anyone here, Anna said. But they eventually learned of the cultural center, then Ridna Shkola.
“It is our language and our school,” she said. “I want that they can continue to learn Ukrainian.”
Almost as importantly, becoming part of the school community has helped ease the family’s loneliness, Anna said. The kids were able to attend a few classes before summer break, and she’s been meeting other Ukrainians through the school and cultural center.
“They found a lot of friends,” Anna said, “and I have also found new friends. We are together, we support each other.”
Svitlana Blazhko waited for her 4-year-old daughter Vira, the girl in the pink party dress. Through a translator, Blazhko said that last February, she, her older daughter, and Vira traveled to Kyiv from their small town intending to fly to L.A., where her mother lives.
But one of them tested positive for COVID-19 before flying, she said, and they were grounded. As they waited in Kyiv, the invasion began. They eventually escaped to Poland.
Once they arrived in L.A. last spring, Blazhko began bringing Vira to the Saturday school. She said it’s given them a sense of community, and is helping Vira adjust.
“It’s socialization,” she said through a translator. “Then it’s the knowledge of Ukrainian culture, Ukrainian language, and communication with kids like her.”
‘We Are All Family’
The tradition behind Ridna Shkola dates back to previous generations of Ukrainian immigrants. L.A.’s school opened more than 50 years ago, according to its website. There are similar schools teaching Ukrainian language, culture, art, history and music in other U.S. cities with Ukrainian diasporas, including San Francisco, Sacramento, Chicago, and New York.
“Ridna Shkola” does not translate neatly into English. Shkola means “school,” but ridna “means, like, ‘relative,’” said school director Victoria Kuzina. “My daughter, I can call her ‘my ridna.’”
Kuzina says this familiar feeling is especially important now, as the school community absorbs new kids and families who left everything behind.
“This is probably the safest place for them, because we know who they are, and they know who we are,” she said. “So we understand them.”
For example, on that first Saturday of classes, a teacher who hails from a city that was liberated by Ukrainian troops had excitedly come in with the news. As a school community, Kuzina said, they experience the emotional rollercoaster of the war together.
“We are all family,” she said. “I think this is the most important … We understand probably better than other people what they [went] through.”
‘I Don’t Want Her To Lose This Connection’
After a couple of hours, some families with younger children began heading out. In the lobby with his family was 3-year-old Peryn, wearing a vintage-looking t-shirt that read “Ukraine” on the front.
It was his first day at Ridna Shkola, and I asked him what he learned: “I learned Ukrainian!” he blurted matter-of-factly.
The t-shirt, it turns out, once belonged to his grandfather as a child. Peryn’s mother, Larissa Paschyn, said it’s been in the family for generations.
“Both of my grandparents came from … Ukraine after World War II,” said Paschyn, who grew up in Cleveland. Her husband is also of Ukrainian descent by way of Australia.
“I went to Ukrainian schools as well growing up,” Paschyn said. “We always figured once we had children, we’d try to get them involved in the Ukrainian heritage as well, especially the language … when he was old enough, we signed him up.”
Paschyn’s was not the only first-year family that was already settled in the U.S. Some said the war triggered a desire to share their roots with their children.
Yuliia Handzi, who’d brought her two children, 8 and 4, said she grew up in Odessa and has lived in L.A. for more than six years.
At home, she used to speak mostly Russian — but after the war began, she wanted her children to embrace their Ukrainian identity.
“I recognized that my kids, they don’t know a lot about Ukrainian traditions,” Handzi said. “I want to teach my kids that we are not Russian, that we are Ukrainian.”
Pretty soon classes were over, and it was time to go home. The little kids came out of their classrooms clutching art and schoolwork to show their parents.
Six-year-old Brianna excitedly displayed a poem to her mother, Sofiia Henyk. The two of them just arrived in L.A. about three months ago. They’ve been staying with a relative in Pasadena, Henyk said, and Brianna has begun regular school. But when she heard about Ridna Shkola, she didn’t hesitate to sign Brianna up.
“I don’t want her to lose this connection,” Henyk said. “She should know where she begins from.”