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Ukrainian students visit sister city of Rockford for respite from war

Two Ukrainian girls recently danced across the stage of Rockford’s historic Coronado Theatre. It was one of their last days in the U.S. before heading back home. The chaperones, some of them parents, and their teenage friends smile as they watched them waltz.

There hasn’t been much for them to smile about over the past six months. Thousands of Ukrainians, many of them civilians, have been killed by Russian forces. Likely over a million Ukrainians have been deported and detainedin Russia.

Vladyslava Vyzhha is one of a group of teenage students from Brovary, just outside of Kyiv, taking a much-needed reprieve in their town’s American sister city -- Rockford. She says the 11-day respite from the war has been emotional and joyful.

“It's just like a fresh breath,” she said. But she can’t totally distance herself from the war, not even 5,000 miles away. Not when her family and friends are back home and she still gets missile alerts on her phone.

“Sometimes it's no alarms. And it can be like 10 alarms or even more — depends on the day,” said Vyzhha.

She’s 16 and about to start her last year in school but hasn’t really decided on a career path -- maybe something in communications. It’s hard for any teenager to plan for the future, let alone in a war zone.

“Of course, we will be back home [soon], and we'll help somehow as the kids can help at least,” she said.

Her dad is in the military. At the beginning of the war, he was stationed close to home and she saw him once a week but, unfortunately, not anymore.

“Four months ago, he went to another region,” she said. "I haven't seen him for four months.”

Her hometown of Brovary and Rockford are sister cities. Normally, that means leaders from each town keep in touch, swapping ideas for things like business and public safety. But when the war broke out, Rockford mayor Tom McNamara says they started asking the Brovary mayor’s office what supplies and aid they needed.

“We've raised over $300,000, and we have shipped more than a quarter million meals, over to Brovary,” he said. “And we have also shipped over more than 10 pallets of medicine. Right now, we're looking at one of their needs is generators. So, we're looking at purchasing generators and getting those shipped over,”

Vladyslava says those supplies have been beneficial. “It was really helpful, when it was almost nearly under occupation, like elderly people or someone who cannot leave the city were there and this food was really helpful,” she said.

Then, in June, McNamara says they got a different request from their Brovary partners. Would Rockford be willing to welcome 17 students and a few parents for a few weeks? He says he immediately reached out to area leaders at the YMCA, who were immediately game to help house and feed the students.

Fewer than two months later, they made it to the U.S. The students took a few trips to Chicago, up to Madison, Wisconsin, and they enjoyed local Rockford attractions like the Nicholas Conservatory and the Coronado.

McNamara says a chaperone told him that while all of the tourist stops where fun, the best part of the trip was a bit of peace of mind.

“They just replied back, ‘being able to sleep through the night and not hear bombs,’” he said.

The mayor says that Rockford is one of, if not the only, U.S. city that’s partnered with a Ukrainian city to give kids a break from the anxieties of war.

Vladyslava is already looking forward to the day when the war is over and friends from Rockford can come to Ukraine so she can show off the churches, the sports, the food -- everything that makes Brovary beautiful.

Some war-related headlines have already fallen off the front page in America.

But Vladyslava has a reminder for Americans who want to help.

“We appreciate everything and if someone wants to help or support and raise donations,” she said. “The war is not over.”

The city of Rockford partnered with several local organizations and humanitarian aid groups to create the Brovary Relief Fund. Information on how to donate to the relief fund can be found at gorockford.com/brovary.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.