AFT Ukraine Project

Our guest author is Shari Obrenski, President of the Cleveland Teachers Union. She served as an American History and Government teacher at Jane Addams Business Careers Center in the Cleveland Municipal School District for 22 years prior to becoming President of the CTU.

Desmond Tutu once said, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” I think most of us aspire to be a source of light in what can be a difficult and dark world. Whether we are showing a small kindness, such as opening a door for a stranger, or doing something much larger, like giving food or shelter to someone in need, bringing light to darkness is something we are taught from a very early age.

We also struggle throughout the course of our lives to choose light over darkness, both individually and collectively. We have seen this age-old struggle surface once again, almost exactly a year ago when Russia invaded the Ukraine. This conflict has brought darkness, both physical and emotional, to the people of Ukraine as war is waged right outside their doors.

On the heels of a pandemic, which isolated everyone, including our school children, the children of Ukraine have had to face another unimaginable trauma as their country was attacked. Their fathers, grandfathers, uncles, and brothers have been called to fight, while the children and their mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and sisters have been left to shelter in place or flee the violence. This is a truly dark period for the people of Ukraine.

Back in October, 2022, American Federations of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten visited Ukraine at the request of the Ukrainian teachers union and the urging of the Polish teachers union. AFT worked with the Polish teachers union the previous summer to provide assistance for Ukrainian refugee children and educators through a summer camp program in Poland. President Weingarten and the AFT continued to seek out opportunities to assist the children and educators of Ukraine, and hoped to find new ways to help during the October visit.

During Randi’s trip, she talked with representatives from the Ukrainian teachers union, the Ukrainian education ministry, and city officials from Lviv. It was the mayor of Lviv who raised the need for generators in the preschools and kindergartens in his city. They were having, and continue to have, threats of missile strikes in Lviv, along with rolling black-outs due to the damage to the electricity infrastructure in the country. That means that these schools can be without power for hours or days at a time. That also means they may have trouble heating the building, making hot meals for the children, or lighting the facility, including the bomb shelters to which they must retreat whenever there is a threat of a missile strike.

Imagine having a few hundred children between the ages of two and six in a series of shadowy basement rooms for hours at a time, with only the equivalent of a flashlight to provide any illumination. You get to the shelter by walking outside, down a series of uneven and slippery steps, to a basement. The teachers and other staff have done wonders trying to put down some soft flooring and making the spaces look inviting, like little club houses, where the children might have to stay for several hours at a time. The few windows that exist in these spaces have sandbags stacked to the top. And, despite the efforts to make these rooms comfortable, the limited light is eerie, even for an adult. It is far more frightening for the children.

President Weingarten worked with the Ukrainian Children’s Action Project (UCAP) to procure nearly 50 generators—enough for every preschool and kindergarten in Lviv. The funds from AFT were generously donated by AFT members to AFT’s Disaster Relief Fund, which is used to aid educators and children experiencing all manners of crisis situations, both natural and manmade.

I had the honor of representing AFT a few weeks ago to deliver a shipment of these generators to the preschools and kindergartens in Lviv, along with Patricia Keefer and John Lindenau of AFT’s International Affairs Department. We worked with colleagues from the Polish teachers union to transport the generators from Poland to Lviv via truck. We then met with the educational leaders from the Lviv preschools and kindergartens to present the generators, show them how to operate the generators, and finally to visit some of the schools at which the generators would be installed.

During the presentation and school visits, I had the honor of meeting several union leaders, teachers, support staff, and students in Lviv. These adults are doing an amazing job of continuing the education of their nation’s youngest and most vulnerable citizens. They proudly showed me the projects that the students have completed with their STREAM curriculum (Science, Technology, Reading/writing, Engineering, Arts, and Math). They spoke fondly of the joint work that they were scheduled to do with some schools in the United States. I saw children playing and learning in very similar ways in which our children play and learn in our country. Mostly, I was struck by the warmth of the Ukrainian people, their pride in their work and their country, and the tenacity and resilience they are demonstrating under enormously stressful conditions. They face the physical and emotional adversity of war daily, yet their primary concern is still the learning of their students. It is both inspiring and humbling to witness.

The generators that we delivered to these schools in Lviv allow for a consistent source of power, no matter the situation. The children will have light, heat, and hot meals no matter the state of the nation’s power grid, and they will feel much more comfortable when there is the threat of a missile attack. This in turn makes this very difficult situation more bearable for the teachers and support staff, who are doing their very best to preserve some sense of normalcy despite the ongoing stresses of being a country at war for nearly one year.

Our union siblings in Lviv all send their gratitude to their AFT counterparts who made the purchase and delivery of the generators possible. They are determined to be victorious in the war and look forward with hope to a day when the war is over. They appreciate all of our support and hope to continue working together throughout this crisis and beyond. They also want us to know that their fight is a fight for democracy both in Ukraine and throughout Europe.

I feel deeply humbled to have been able to be part of this on-going work. The educators of Lviv and throughout Ukraine are incredible. We must continue, in whatever ways possible, to support them and the children they serve. They truly need and appreciate our assistance. This war shows no signs of ending any time soon. These people continue to be lights in the darkness. We must continue to help that light burn brightly.