A Fall River teacher is helping her students learn and develop a bond between students in the Ukraine all while experiencing a closeness to the community herself.
Back in March of last year, Diman history teacher Ashley Duffany made a connection on social media with an 18-year-old Ukrainian student, Olek, who was, and still is, studying at a tech high school in Poland. Duffany stated that he left his home in Irpin, Ukraine for Poland just 3 days before the war broke out.
“We formed a bond and he agreed to an interview with me which I shared with my students in April. We continued talking every day and my husband and I invited him to come to the US on a tourist visa and stay with us for a month over summer break.”
Olek’s parents had to relocate as refugees to Switzerland, where they are currently still residing. Duffany’s class held a small talk at Diman over the summer in which Olek and Duffany spoke with students about his family’s escape from Ukraine and the difficulty of being displaced.
Duffany with Olek
After spending a month here in Massachusetts, Olek went back to Poland for the start of school. This relationship changed both Duffany and her students.
“Having formed this massive bond with him and his family, I became more deeply invested in the Russian war against Ukraine, as did my students. I gave them weekly updates in class and we would frequently discuss the latest events occurring there while connecting to the historical topics we were studying. I carried that into this school year with my new classes of students.”
As interest in the Ukraine grew among her and her students, one of Duffany’s favorite military analysts, General Mark Hertling, who shared a Twitter exchange with her, asked if her students might be interested in having a Zoom discussion with him one day. Excited for the opportunity, on November 8th, Duffany’s class had approximately 50 Diman students gather in the library and ask General Hertling many questions about the war in Ukraine, military life, and the American Battle Monuments Commission which he was appointed Chairman of back in 2021 by President Biden.
Duffany kept in touch with General Hertling and thanks to an invite from the General, Duffany and her husband planned to attend a documentary on the centennial anniversary of the American Battle Monuments Commission being held in Washington D.C. With her class currently discussing World War I, it was a perfect opportunity to provide added learning for her students and while there she could stop by the Ukraine House and the Ukrainian Embassy to pay her respects.
Once her students learned of the trip to take place early in March, the idea surfaced to write some letters of support and see if the embassy would accept them and send them to high school students in Ukraine.
On short notice, about a dozen freshmen and sophomore students of Duffany’s wrote letters and cards of support for Ukraine and Ukrainian students.
With letters in hand and some flowers with blue and yellow ribbon, the colors of Ukraine, Duffany made her trip to the D.C. Ukrainian Embassy. When she arrived, she explained to an official and a soldier that she was a teacher from Massachusetts who wanted to deliver student letters of support. After some concern by officials due to suspicious packages and attempted assassinations at Ukrainian embassies, they eventually agreed to take the letters and flowers and thanked Duffany for them.
“He said he would give them to the Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. – Oksana Markarova and she would figure out what to do with the letters and how to get them to Ukraine. We shook hands with (an official) and the soldier and they closed the door to the embassy. I didn’t expect to really hear anything back, especially not right away.”
A few hours later that evening, while attending the ABMC event with General Hertling at the National Archives, Duffany received an alert from a friend who told her that the Ukrainian Embassy had made a post about the letters and flowers on Facebook.
The next day, Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, replied to Duffany with a tweet.
According to Duffany, her and her students were “out of their minds with excitement” and are hoping that the letters make it to a Ukrainian high school and the students will write back.
Duffany and her students have another reason to be excited. Olek, the Ukrainian student referenced earlier who is studying in a tech school in Poland, will be coming to Diman next year as a Senior.
“My husband and I applied for his parents to come stay with us here at our home in Somerset under the United 4 Ukraine initiative and they were just approved Tuesday night. We are putting in Olek’s application later this month – we are waiting because once approved, the refugee MUST land in the US within 90 days and Olek wants to finish this school year up at his current school in Poland. They finish June 23 so we will be putting in his United 4 Ukraine application March 24. He will come over and join his parents with us here and attend Diman in the Fall to finish his high school career!”
Duffany also stated that after meeting General Hertling in person at the ABMC event, he offered to hold another Zoom with Diman students regarding the war in Ukraine this Spring.
Through this whole experience Duffany and her students have learned a lot about Ukraine, and about themselves.
“My students are incredibly kind, compassionate, caring young men and women and I’m so proud that they wanted to write letters and cards to teenagers on the other side of the world going through the worst trauma one could imagine.”