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Dead Kiev Protesters Remembered by Ukrainian Village Students Wearing Black

By Alisa Hauser | February 20, 2014 11:29am | Updated on February 20, 2014 12:44pm
 One-third of Columbus Elementary School's students are Ukrainian and most wore black on Wednesday to show solidarity and mourning for those that have died in protests.
Columbus School Ukraine Solidarity
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UKRAINIAN VILLAGE — The violent and deadly protests in Kiev have hit close to home for students at a Chicago public school who wore black on Thursday to show support for the Eastern European nation fighting to break ties from Russia.

"I was grown up here, but I still care [about Ukraine]," said Aleksander Nikolaychko, a fifth-grade student at Ukrainian Village's Christopher Columbus Elementary School, 1003 N. Leavitt St.

Wearing a black soccer jersey instead of the white shirt that is part of his CPS uniform, Nikolaychko said, "I care about the people that die. They are dying for us to have a good country. My heart is hurting."

Though most of the Ukrainian children at the school are originally from Lviv, a city in Western Ukraine, Nikolaycho is from southern Ukraine and his parents speak Russian, said Romana Labazevych, a teacher's assistant at the school.

 Ukrainian students at Christopher Columbus Elementary attended a December rally to support Ukraine.
Ukrainian students at Christopher Columbus Elementary attended a December rally to support Ukraine.
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Romana Labazevych

In Kiev, crowds of up to 1 million protesters have been occupying a square, or "maidan," where they are calling on their country's government to sign a pact to become part of the European Union and reject a closer economic alliance with Russia. 

The protests in Kiev come after Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych abruptly suspended talks in November aimed at a historic trade agreement with the European Union.

On Thursday, a truce called by Yanukovych fell apart when protesters threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at security guards, resulting in nearly 100 dead, according to reports. 

"The people that died there, killed there. We are watching nonstop all day, all night, all of us. We support Ukraine," said Volodymyr Slobodyan, 11, who moved to Chicago two years ago from Ukraine.

About one-third of the school's 300 students are of Ukrainian descent, said assistant principal Keli Robison.

Though it is Chicago Public Schools policy not to discuss politics with students, Robison said the wearing of all black is to "show support."

Ukrainian parents approached Robison on Wednesday to ask if their children could wear black on Thursday for a "day of mourning," Robison said.

"Of course, we want to make sure that we support our families here; the connection to their country is super important. We are a small school, and we are all supportive of each other," Robison said.

In December, the Ukrainian students and several teachers wore blue and yellow to an assembly to show their support for the protests. 

Outside the school, several students and their parents have been participating in "Euro Maidan" rallies, one of which was at the Ukrainian Village Cultural Center, 2247 W. Chicago Ave., in December.

Klym Khrystyna, a parent who is president of the school's bilingual committee, said, "The children are upset, crying. They know about the realities [in Ukraine]. I so hope for the Ukrainian people, for God to help us. I hope everything will be fine, and they can be a free country," Khrystyna said.

Marta Lubovych, a sixth-grade student who was wearing a black and gray sweatshirt, said her grandparents and cousins live in Lviv.

"We are telling our friends [about what is happening]," said Lubovych, who has been watching the protests on Ukrainian and American news channels.

Desiree Gamboa, who is Hispanic, was wearing black, too.

"I want to support them," Gamboa said of her Ukrainian classmates.

Labazevych said students like Gamboa, who are not Ukrainian, are learning more about what is happening through their friends.

"We need support, American support. Not just Ukrainian," Labazevych said.

At St. Nicholas Cathedral School, 2200 W. Rice St., children have been participating in prayer services and discussing the protests in their Social Studies classes, said Barry Little, the school's executive director.

Since the protests began two months ago, the private school, which serves about 130 students, the majority whom are of Ukrainian descent, has draped blue and yellow ribbons over its front fence. 

In December the students produced a YouTube video message to show their support of Ukraine.

Last night, the school posted message to its Facebook page about one of their graduates, George Sajewych, who was seriously injured yesterday in Kyiv on the Maidan.

"George retired from Voice of America, the U.S. Government’s international radio and TV broadcasting service and has served as an interpreter during high level US-Ukraine negotiations under two US Presidents, including George W. Bush and Leonid Kuchma at the Camp David talks. We wish him strength and a full recovery!" the school wrote. 

Marta Fuoco, a parent of two boys that go to St. Nicholas School, said the conflict in Kiev "is on  parent's minds, they are talking about it as they are waiting to pick kids up."

On Wednesday, the school held an open house to attract new families to the school, however, the mood among parents was "somber," Fuoco said.

After the open house, several parents left to head Downtown, where they participated in a candlelight vigil with their children in front of Water Tower Place, Fuoco said.

There are about 50,000 Ukrainian-American citizens in the Chicago area, according to Katya Mischenko-Mycyk, a social media spokeswoman with the Ukrainian Congress Committee.