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Following one Kharkiv kindergarten class since the Russian invasion

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

In the city of Kharkiv in northeast Ukraine, there is a kindergarten classroom with yellow and green walls, with little beds and little chairs. Once, it was a magical place where children played chess and grew flowers and learned and laughed. In an instant on a Wednesday last February, war came to Kharkiv.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Russian forces are invading Ukraine.

SUMMERS: And everything changed for that classroom full of 6-year-olds. NPR's Elissa Nadworny has the story of what happened in the year that followed.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: When I first saw that bright-green classroom - the one nicknamed Zolushka, which means Cinderella - it was covered in broken glass. It was August, and the school building had been hit by Russian artillery. There weren't any students there, but two teacher's aides were injured.

YANA TSYHANENKO: (Speaking Russian).

HANNA PALAMORENKO: So you can see the bloodstains.

NADWORNY: The head of school, Yana Tsyhanenko, toured me around the colorful school. Under the layers of dust and debris, this green classroom was filled with things that hinted at life before - a chess game open mid-match, the little beds with stuffed animals on the pillows and the lunch menu from the day of the invasion still hung up on the wall - buckwheat soup and cabbage that was never served. Tsyhanenko opens a row of lockers to find they're still filled with clothes and shoes.

TSYHANENKO: No (laughter).

NADWORNY: And a drawing of a snowman. As I was leaving, Yana said to me...

TSYHANENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "It's not the damage to the school that I'm mourning. It's the destruction of childhood." I couldn't stop thinking about what had happened to the children who once learned here. How were each of these 6-year-olds figuring out how to live and learn and be a kid while their home is at war? Over the next weeks and months, I set out to find them.

Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hello.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF DOORBELL RINGING)

NADWORNY: The students in this kindergarten - they are scattered all across the world and Ukraine.

OK. Will you tell me your name?

BOGDAN SENENUHA: Bogdan.

NADWORNY: In Germany and Poland.

What do you remember from your kindergarten?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: There, we make flowers.

NADWORNY: In Spain.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Hola, Aurora.

AURORA: Hola.

NADWORNY: And in the U.S.

DANIEL: I have friends - three of them.

NADWORNY: Today, the story of two who stayed in Ukraine. Just one remained in the city of Kharkiv.

Yeah. What's your name?

PALAMORENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

SOFIA KUZMINA: Sofia.

NADWORNY: In September, translator Hanna Palamorenko and I returned there to meet Sofia Kuzmina on the playground that separates her family's apartment building from the kindergarten.

SOFIA: S-O-F-I-A.

NADWORNY: Sofia is confident and tall. She wears half her blonde hair in a knot at the top of her head. She bypasses the brightly colored wooden seesaw and the metal merry-go-round and heads for a row of bushes, where she begins to collect leaves and sticks.

SOFIA: (Vocalizing).

NADWORNY: The playground is no fun when you're all alone. And Kharkiv, with nightly shelling, is pretty empty.

SOFIA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Her mom, Natalya, is watching on a nearby bench.

Who do you think she's talking to?

NATALYA KUZMINA: (Laughter, non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "She's talking to herself," her mom says. During the war, Sofia's had to get used to playing on her own. Sofia hands her mom a pile of leaves.

SOFIA: It's salad.

KUZMINA: (Non-English language spoken). Yum, yum, yum.

NADWORNY: Natalya says, despite the danger, she can't even imagine moving and living elsewhere. For Sofia, now in the first grade, school is all online, and it's completely different from her beloved kindergarten.

Are the colors different?

SOFIA: (Speaking Russian).

PALAMORENKO: "Yeah, I don't know the color of walls in school."

NADWORNY: Yeah, 'cause you can't see them.

KUZMINA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Natalya explains that before the invasion, Sofia was social, calm, a leader. And the war - it's really taken a toll on her. She's overly emotional, acting out, argumentative, and Natalya's been doing everything she can to shield her. They don't even talk about the war.

KUZMINA: No. (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Her job is to put Sofia to bed before the nightly attacks so she sleeps through it. And she'll lie if she has to. That explosion - oh, that's just a car. That's construction. Natalya and the other 26 families in Sofia's kindergarten class are having to make really hard decisions every day. How much do they talk to their kids about the war? How do they manage changes in their children's behavior?

KUZMINA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: She tells me they shared these questions in a group text chat started well before the war. My kid is scared, they text. My kid is sad. My kid misses the kindergarten.

VIKTORIA SENENUHA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Bogdan Senenuha's mom, Viktoria, is an active member of that chat...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOGDAN: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: ...Frequently sending videos of her son. We took the train across the country to visit them, far from the front line in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, near the border with Poland. And Bogdan's family - they've taken a very different approach from Sofia's.

SENENUHA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: My children know everything, Viktoria explains, as she sits on the couch with Bogdan, quizzing him.

SENENUHA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Who made you leave Kharkiv, she asks.

BOGDAN: Russia.

SENENUHA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Who made Ukrainians leave their home, she asks.

BOGDAN: Putin.

SENENUHA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: And what are we doing now?

BOGDAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "We are punching them in the teeth," Bogdan says. They left Kharkiv in a panic last winter. Bogdan's dad stayed behind, assisting the military in their defense. The rest of the family is now living in a friend's apartment here in Lviv. They say it's the safest place to be still in Ukraine.

SENENUHA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "Bogdan grew up in an instant," his mom says. "We didn't have time for filtering things. He was anxious, started to regress, biting things, sucking things." Unlike Sofia's mom, Viktoria felt telling him everything - that might help him get some power, some control back.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOGDAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: So has sharing his new life with his kindergarten friends from Kharkiv. He's been sending videos to that group chat.

What is this one?

SENENUHA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: That was the first day of school.

SENENUHA: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Unlike Sofia, Bogdan's new school in Lviv is in person.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #2: (Non-English language spoken).

BOGDAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: It's closer to normal, at least on days when learning is not interrupted by power outages, air raid sirens or missile attacks.

BOGDAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Bogdan shows us the shelter today. There was a drill, and in just five minutes, all 500 students made it down here.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

NADWORNY: For the next several months, translator Hanna Palamorenko and I stayed in touch with these families.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Yeah, hi - wanted to call you back.

PALAMORENKO: Here is the message from Viktoria Senenuha, Bogdan's mom. There was a massive missile attack. The lights went off, and they could hear the... From Natalya Kuzmina. She says, good evening. We are still in Kharkiv. We have power cuts, usually without warning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOGDAN: (Non-English language spoken).

PALAMORENKO: He says, like, our soldiers are brave, and they...

NADWORNY: I returned to Ukraine in January, and things in Kharkiv had gotten better. A counteroffensive in the fall pushed back Russian forces. But constant missile attacks to the country's power grid remain a big challenge. When we visit Sofia's apartment, there's no power, so we have to take the stairs to the 10th floor.

The fourth floor.

There are battery-powered Christmas lights strung up in the entryway.

It's so pretty.

KUZMINA: (Laughter, non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "They are practical and beautiful," Natalya says. They've gotten used to the power outages. There are flashlights in all their pockets. They don't use the fridge or freezer. They boil water and keep it in a thermos.

SOFIA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: During our visit, Sofia is scheduled to be in her first-grade class online. But like many days, the power outage means it's not happening.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOY BEEPING)

NADWORNY: Even after all this time, that green kindergarten class is the school she thinks about. Her mom tells us she still talks about it in the present tense. When do you think about kindergarten? When?

SOFIA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "I think about the kindergarten before I fall asleep at night."

SOFIA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "I remember how it was, and I dream about what it would be if we were all back."

Sofia, I want to show you some photos.

SOFIA: Bogdan is in my group.

NADWORNY: I show her photos on my phone of her classmates that I visited, of Bogdan in his new classroom.

So what would you say to your friends around the world who wonder how you're doing and what your life is like?

SOFIA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "I would tell them to come back," she says, "because I'm bored." But she's actually a lot less bored than she was six months ago, when she made that salad on the empty playground.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Vocalizing).

NADWORNY: Singing lessons have resumed in person.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Bent, straight.

NADWORNY: And so have dance lessons. Sofia is surrounded by a dozen girls in tights, practicing splits and spins. Even after all this time, her mom, Natalya, is still shielding her from the war.

KUZMINA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "I've heard that parents who tell their children everything about the war are now looking for a psychologist," she tells us. "Of course, Sofia sees some things, but I'm doing my best to isolate her so she doesn't know about the news."

What about you?

KUZMINA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "Me, I just look out the window," she says, "and see the smoke."

SENENUHA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: I'm still thinking about that two weeks later, when we're all the way across Ukraine, driving home from school with Bogdan and his mom. An air raid siren goes off, and Bogdan leans forward in his car seat and asks his mom...

BOGDAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "Does that mean there are missiles above us?"

SENENUHA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: "I don't think so," she tells him.

BOGDAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "But what if they can get us," he squeaks.

SENENUHA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Viktoria reassures him it's OK. She often does this when he gets anxious or stressed, but she's also adamant that Bogdan doesn't forget what's happening in his country.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLOSING)

NADWORNY: A few blocks from their apartment, we stop at the Lychakiv Cemetery. The family comes here frequently to honor those who have died in the war. We walk along the rows of freshly dug graves, the mounds of dirt covered in ribbons with pictures and flowers, a slight dusting of snow lingering on the petals.

SENENUHA: (Speaking Russian).

NADWORNY: "I want my son to see this," Viktoria says, "to feel this sacrifice." With Bogdan in tow, they approach a family here, standing at the end of one of the gravesites - at their feet, a portrait of a young man in uniform. Viktoria and Bogdan stand with the family for a moment. Bogdan holds his mom's hand. He's quiet as we walk back to the car. His mom is in tears.

SENENUHA: (Non-English language spoken).

PALAMORENKO: See how many people are there? They are somebody's sons, husbands, fathers. Bogdan says, somebody's grandchildren, grandsons.

NADWORNY: It makes Viktoria feel helpless.

SENENUHA: (Crying, non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: She doesn't want to shield him from this pain, from this hate that she feels. She thinks of Bogdan, of his classmates, children who may not get a say in their future, a generation shaped by war. Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.
Lauren Migaki is a senior producer with NPR's education desk. She helps tell stories about teacher strikes, college access and a new high school for young men in Washington D.C. She also produces and hosts NPR's podcast about the Student Podcast Challenge.