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  • Paul Shannon

Understanding Amidst Chaos: My Journey Through Screens, His Through Shells

By Paul Shannon
Posted on May 1, 2024
A sunlight-filled crevice in the rock, likely a desert formation.
Cover Image Title: The Eye of Light
Cover Image by: Kady Le
Classification: Photography
Size: 3024 pixels X 4032 pixels
Year: 2023

This world is not perfect—and its virtues—although upstanding, do not necessarily always outweigh the negative. It is still to be expected that things just occur; our universe, she tends to proceed with little regard for our wellbeing. Further discernations (e.g. psychological, physiological, and physical) do not even exist therein. You are expected to just survive this life in spite of that fact, as per the laws of natural selection. But survival is not always living.

This story begins in February of 2022, as Russia commenced its invasion on Kyiv, renewing and intensifying the Russo-Ukrainian war. This, inevitably stemming from the 2014 conflict wherein Russia annexed Crimea and began arming separatists, has left more than 17,600,000 individuals, including approximately 4,100,000 children, in urgent need of humanitarian assistance and protection, according to The United Nations Refugee Agency. Moreover, the conflict has been the sole cause of 500,000 estimated casualties within Ukraine, approximately 35x more deaths than was observed during the precursor war in Donbas. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) additionally found that more Russian soldiers were lost in the first year of the war in Ukraine than in all other wars Russia participated in since the Second World war combined.

The sheer magnitude of civilian displacement—with many main battlegrounds being Ukrainian cities—has affected both adults and children alike. Many nonprofit organizations have been established in response to this crisis. One in particular, ENGin, connects English-speaking volunteers aged 14 and older with Ukrainians aged 9-35 for online speaking practice through weekly video chatting, encouraging cross-cultural connection. 

In September of 2022, I’d been referred to the ENGin Program through VolunteerMatch, a volunteer-engagement network which allows individuals to find volunteering opportunities, both local and remote, as organizations in need claim their spot, create profiles, and add opportunities. After the initial application process, which involved an interview, a program agreement and subsequent volunteer training, a quiz, and a self-assessment, I was cleared to begin searching for learners to teach. I was initially matched with a 10-year-old boy living in Kyiv, by the name of Andriy. After initially reaching out to him through an email, we’d ironed out our schedule: every Sunday, if all went to plan, we would meet over Zoom and chat for an hour.

Our first meeting was typical—it simply consisted of introducing ourselves. I told him all about myself, my family, where I live, and what we do in the United States. Andriy had told me that he was heavily interested in computer science. He was advanced in English for his age; however, he had some trouble with speaking, as Ukrainian schools focus mostly on English grammar and vocabulary work. He’d told me that he wanted to reinforce his English with my help, so he could eventually move to America and pursue a career as a videogame designer. Even to this day, he reminds me of myself when I was just a few years younger.

Some days, however, Andriy wasn’t available. It’s easy to forget, from the comfort of one’s own home, that this child is living through a literal warzone. The thought that this child, the exact age as my niece, was being exposed to horrors I could never even imagine and knowing I could do nothing more for him genuinely hurt me. Andriy would additionally tell me he lived next to an electrostation, which was, unfortunately, one of the Russian’s main targets. His house’s general vicinity would be shelled regularly, and in one of our earlier chats he told me a little about his family’s protocol for whenever this occurs. When it started, he wasn’t allowed in his room—he would sit in the hallway with his family members, and close his eyes, simply absorbing the violent reverberation of his home’s very foundation, hoping that it would come to an end soon.

When he was available, though, we talked. It allowed for a personal connection that you wouldn’t find between a little boy and his teacher. He got to know me, and I got to know him. We talked about things we liked, and what bothered us. We discussed our favorite people, how they’ve affected us, and how we may have affected them. I created seasonal lesson plans for various holidays celebrated in the United States (e.g. Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving), as well as those celebrated in Ukraine, and we taught one another about each, and often compared how our families would celebrate differently. I even taught him the basics of HTML, a programming language, to help with building a solid foundation for his desired future; by the time we’d concluded those lessons, he had created his own website.

After seven months of weekly chats—virtually the entirety of last school year —I was on my way to France for a school trip. I sent Andriy an email, letting him know I wouldn’t be able to chat the days I was gone. He replied as he normally would, saying he’d have school the week I returned. When the France trip was over, and when I did return, he didn’t. 

A month passed, with no word from Andriy or a single member of his family, ENGin’s Participant Support would contact me, saying that they’ve noticed that there were no recent speaking sessions between the two of us. I told them that he hadn’t responded in a month, and I was worried—he lived right next to the electrostation being shelled. An unimaginable number of people were dying every day as a direct result of this conflict. And this death is indiscriminate; it cares not for your age, nor your gender, who you are, or what you’d like to do with your life.

I, to this day, have not heard from Andriy. I am not a religious individual, but I’ve found myself praying for his safety; I’ve also found myself looking for any trace of him on the internet, but I’ve yet to find him, or his family anywhere. It’s likely I’ll never know what really happened, and I’m sure I’ll come to accept that eventually. I can just hope he’s okay, and that one day, he’ll work on that game he’d always tell me about.

This entire relationship, my friendship with this young learner, demonstrates two sorts of literacy: digital inclusivity and emotional literacy—with Andriy living through a conflict-riddled area, he was often outside of school, and forced to stay home. I did my best to provide him with ample educational materials and support so as to allow him to grow and develop intellectually , despite the fact that we met online and had no face-to-face interaction. As for emotional literacy, the uncertainty surrounding Andriy’s disappearance has allowed me to develop, as well. I have since tried to identify, understand, and express my emotions in a healthy manner, and to recognize the impact of this sort of uncertainty on my well-being.

To say that closure in this is unlikely is to adopt a type of thinking that I have tried to stray away from the entirety of my short time on this Earth. I find this sort of thinking to not only be ignorant, but dismal, as well. And dismality would tend to only make this situation worse. Maintaining hope in the face of adversity, however, no matter how grand your struggle, will always do the opposite. I personally hope to, one day in the future, beat a video game and see this name plastered across the screen: “Andriy Yaroslavov.”

[Writing Editor: Anonymous Contributor]

[The End]


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