September 14, 2022 // National

Michigan Ukrainian Catholic school welcomes war refugees

By Daniel Meloy

WARREN, Mich. (CNS) – Imagine you are 8 years old, and overnight, you have to leave your home – never to see it again, in all likelihood.

You leave behind all your toys, your cousins, your dog, your neighborhood. Even your father stays behind to fight in the impending war.

You and your siblings, along with your mother, who doesn’t seem to have a lot of answers, travel to a foreign country where you don’t speak the language, the food is different, and you are thousands of miles away from home.

But then your mother takes you to a school in a quaint neighborhood. In front of the school is a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and behind her is a sign, “Our Lady, Protector of Ukraine,” with flags and decorations in your native national colors.

Families at St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Church in Warren, Mich., rally in support of Ukrainian refugees Aug. 23, 2022. This fall, Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Catholic Schools in Warren will welcome nearly 100 refugee students fleeing the war-torn country. (CNS photo/Daniel Meloy, Detroit Catholic)

For refugee students at Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Catholic School in Warren, such a sight might be the first welcoming sign they have seen in a long time.

This fall, approximately 100 students from war-torn Ukraine will join the school, which in a normal year has an enrollment of about 200 students.

Since the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014 and invasion of the rest of Ukraine this past February, the school has opened its arms to refugee students and their families, who can feel at home in a school that has classes in the Ukrainian language and culture, teachers who speak Ukrainian, and where Mass is celebrated in the Byzantine-Ukrainian rite.

“We are asking parishioners and people of goodwill to donate to the schools to help us offset the school deficit for tuition,” said Father Daniel Schaicoski, a priest of the Order of St. Basil the Great.

The priest, who is the superior of Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Catholic School, noted the school’s #StandWithUkraine Sponsor a Child Program. “We will have over 100 students, and more than that, coming as refugees this year.”

As the war in Ukraine drags into its seventh month, Father Schaicoski said families are still trickling into the area and applying.

“We want to help those families who come here. We want to give the children a school and environment that is friendly to them, where they know the language. Our school is the best place for them to learn English and integrate into America,” Father Schaicoski told Detroit Catholic, news outlet of the Detroit Archdiocese.

Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Catholic School, which features a K-8 curriculum, was established in 1936 to care for the first- and second-generation Ukrainian immigrants who came to Michigan.

Along with St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Church in Warren, Immaculate Conception is asking local Catholics to consider sponsoring a refugee student through its Sponsor a Child Program, which helps cover the cost of tuition for a family.

“This will require a huge effort from us,” Father Schaicoski said. “They are coming without the language; many of them have all kinds of stress. So many of these students have seen war, violence, just unspeakable tragedies. Our homeroom teachers will need help, especially from those who can translate.” 

Before the war, about 70 percent of the student population was Americans of Ukrainian heritage. Another 20 percent was Chaldean, and about 10 percent included other families looking for a Catholic education. This year, 28 percent is estimated to be refugees fleeing Ukraine, Father Schaicoski said.

“Last year we had 20 or so (refugee) students, and it was amazing to see how our students were helping those who just came from Ukraine,” the priest said. “Those kids from Ukraine didn’t understand English, but Ukrainian students from here would translate everything, help with their homework and all of that.”

Immaculate Conception has contacted social workers and psychologists to work with refugee students, but it has been a difficult task finding social workers who speak Ukrainian, he said.

“We had one child, a third grader, who was crying for two weeks,” he noted. “I approached her mother, who told me, ‘Father, what she saw on her travels from the east to Poland, you will not see in your lifetime, not in movies.’” 

On Aug. 23, the Ukrainian-American community gathered at St. Josaphat for a prayer vigil to celebrate Ukraine’s independence and mark the six-month anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The following day was Ukrainian Independence Day, when the country declared independence from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991.

Participants waved Ukrainian flags and held signs of support. Local officials spoke about the evils being done to Ukrainian civilians, particularly children being deported to Russia and forced to assimilate into Russian culture.

“Hundreds of children in Ukraine have been killed, even more have been injured, and perhaps thousands, maybe millions, have been displaced,” Warren Mayor Jim Fouts said.

“Humanly speaking, as a Christian, what is most important is to provide these children with help,” Father Schaicoski said. “That is where this school is important. It will be easier to approach all the difficulties, the trauma they faced, in a school that feels more like home.”

He recalled how, by the end of last school year, the third grader who couldn’t stop crying was making friends and beginning to smile.

“You really can’t put into words what these kids have gone through, but I remember when it was three months in and her teacher pointed and said, ‘She’s smiling,’” Father Schaicoski said.

“That was the most rewarding thing. She wasn’t speaking English or anything, but when we saw she was smiling, we knew we were doing something right. That was the most rewarding thing.”

“It’s easy to say, ‘I stand with Ukraine,’ but this is what you need to do to help,” Father Schaicoski said of sponsoring students. “If you talk about helping Ukraine, this is a chance to help Ukraine that is at your doorstep.”

Meloy is a staff writer for Detroit Catholic, the news outlet of the Archdiocese of Detroit.

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