War Torn: Leaving Ukraine, Coming To Kansas

Junior Kate Syniavska and her story from leaving her family to seek safety midst the war in Ukraine and safely attend school.

Picture of Kate Syniavska.

Picture of Kate Syniavska.

Lucy Call, Editor (2021-22)

Blue Valley West junior Kate Syniavska’s world got turned upside-down in just a few months. Kate was born and raised in Varash, in northwest Ukraine, and lived with her mother. She came to America to be protected from the war.
Growing up, she had visited the United States a few times to see her aunt and began learning English in school since second grade. Now a student at Blue Valley West high school in Overland Park, Kan., Syniavska recalls the day her life drastically changed, just three months ago.
“I woke up, it was February 24th… my mom said ‘you don’t need to go to school today’. I asked her why and she told me it was war status in our country. She said to me that Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, is being [bombed],” Syniavska said.
She described an intuitive feeling she had in the days leading up to it.
“In [the days before] the war, I packed my backpack with food, clothes, first aid… I understood that it may happen… I was ready for this, and I wasn’t surprised,” Syniavska said.
“[On that day] my grandma had gone to check her [apartment] and I was alone on the first day of war. I checked all the news and it was really horrifying when I heard the first siren,” Syniavska said. “I started to rush around… and then I found out that this siren was a testing siren. So it wasn’t real, there was no disaster, but it was like testing. But nobody knew it.”
During the afternoon, after another testing siren, she and the other people in her apartment building went to the basement. “By that time, I had already packed three bags for my mom, my grandma, and myself. I was alone and I had like three backpacks with me, and a bag with food,” Syniavska said.
In the following days, Syniavska’s family tried to protect themselves with Molotov cocktails and camouflage.
“It’s the way for citizens to protect themselves from real danger,” she said.
Then, they were ready for their next course of action.
”I’d been in Ukraine maybe for eleven days, and then all my family [decided] to go to Poland, because of the danger,” Syniavska said. “My town has a nuclear power station in it. At first, we thought it was like a guarantee of safety, but it wasn’t.”
Syniavska’s family learned of a disturbing occurrence in another town that hosted a nuclear power station. “We have five or six nuclear power stations in Ukraine… The one in the south, the city was occupied and the nuclear bomb station was shot by Russian soldiers,” she said.
By March 10, two days after her family arrived in Poland, Kate left for the U.S. after her aunt suggested she should move there.
Thankfully, America wasn’t a completely foreign place to her.
“I’ve traveled a lot and I’ve been here five times before to visit my aunt,” Syniavska said. “It was pretty familiar, I knew what to do, but it was a long journey. Still a really good experience for me.”
The move to America was a dramatic shift in many forms, one being the differences between the American and Ukrainian education systems.
“In Ukraine, we have about fifteen subjects, we cannot choose what we study,” Syniavska said. “That’s what I like about here, you can choose and do whatever you want, there are some requirements but still.”
Syniavska described the emphasis that Ukraine put on core subjects and studying. “[In Ukraine] it’s a bit harder because you’re concentrated on many subjects, it’s a bit harder to study actually,” Syniavska said. “We have more strict teachers I guess.”
BV West provided opportunities she wasn’t used to. “Here, you’re a bit encouraged to do sports things and music things, but in Ukraine, it’s not like that,” Syniavska said. “We concentrate more on studying. In high school, we barely have time to do sports or music, and the school doesn’t provide any entertainments.”
To her, the availability of art-related classes was greatly welcomed. “I’m an art person, but in Ukraine, we don’t study art [in high school].”
The student population at West was another drastic difference from her old school. “In Ukraine, we study in one class with the same group of people for years,” Syniavska said. “We usually have smaller schools that involve elementary and middle and high school together. We have three years of high school, I was with the same people all the time,” Syniavska said.
Although she appreciated the strong friendships this helped build, Syniavska enjoys the constant change in the environment and a large pool of people at BV West. “You can just meet more people here,” she said.
Notably, coming to America changed her future plans.
“I have eleven years of studying in Ukraine. [They’re changing it] so that kids that are born after a certain year will need to study twelve years, so the educational system is changing a bit. But [for me] it’s still eleven years,” Syniavska said.
Under normal circumstances, she would’ve been finishing high school in Ukraine. “This year, I was supposed to do exams, like four exams, we have the opportunity to pass them only once. By the results of the exams, we may enter universities,” Syniavska said.
Now, she will continue her education for another year as a BV West senior. However, Syniavska is grateful for the opportunities it provides.
“Actually, I’m really happy to have one extra year [at West]. I’m happy because here you have a lot of art options, and that’s what I love,” Syniavska said. “I do photography, and a bit of drawing and digital art. So, I’m going to attend photography and an art class next year.”

One of Syniavska’s digital art pieces she made.

Another year in school will also give her the ability to form closer bonds with her classmates and get her more accustomed to English and the American lifestyle before graduating.
Syniavska appreciates the community at BVW embracing her.
“They met me with [ a lot of] hospitality and made me feel even better than in [my] home school. The BVW students are very polite and friendly, I hope [they will become] more engaged [in] supporting Ukraine activities. And I am truly grateful to [the] teachers and all the staff of BVW,” she said.
However, living halfway around the world from her home country is no easy feat. She maintains contact with her family members as best as she can, despite the time gap.
Ukraine is about eight hours ahead of Kansas, which poses challenges to their communication.
“I talk with my mom every day after school, but it’s a bit hard for us. School here finishes at 3 p.m. and it’s like 11 p.m. in Ukraine. Every time I call my mom, she’s in bed already, but I try to call her every day and I call my whole family each weekend.”
Almost all of her family still lives in Ukraine. “It’s really hard to live there, I can’t even imagine how hard it would be for me to stay there because each day there are like sirens,” Syniavska said.
“I’m pretty nervous here, it gives me anxiety… there are a lot of airports, and when I first moved here it was like so scary for me,” she said.
“Each time I heard the sound of the plane, my brain says it may be a bomb or something. When I first moved here, there were more [than there are now]… I would even get up at night because of it. I can’t even imagine how people in Ukraine must feel.”
Despite all that the conflict has put her through, she still feels fortunate.
“I have a very lucky case,” Syniavska said. “Because I’m here, I have food, I have a place to live.”
Syniavska will have to keep watch on her home country from thousands of miles away, but she won’t let it get her spirits down.
Syniavska has become an advocate for the issues and hopes to educate more students about the current situation in Ukraine. Right now, students can participate by donating supplies to room 318. Necessities such as food and hygiene products may be dropped off until the 24th of May. She encourages students to share this and other ways to help with their friends or on social media.
Syniavska advises American teenagers to try and stay as up-to-date as possible.

Help Ukrainians by bringing in necessities such as food and hygiene products. Donations are welcomed until May 24th. Supplies may be dropped off in room 318 (Mr. MacDonnel’s room).

“My hope is that Ukraine will win as soon as possible. After the war ends we will rebuild our infrastructure better than it was before,” Syniavska said. “Ukraine will glow and bloom. We will make our country free, powerful, and highly developed since we have all technologies and resources needed.”