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After fleeing war in Ukraine, kindergartners find advocate in recent U of M grad

After fleeing the war in Ukraine, Solomiia Kuchma is adjusting to her new school in Minneapolis with help from a recent University of Minnesota graduate.

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota — When Solomiia Kuchma first started kindergarten at Lake Harriet Lower Elementary School in Minneapolis, the 5-year-old's mom would spend the day walking around the school so that she was never far from Solomiia. 

"Every morning, Solomiia is crying," recalled Nataliia Kuchma, adding that her daughter did not want to go to class. "Not because she doesn't like the school but because she's afraid and she doesn't want me to leave her." 

The Kuchmas are from the city of Sumy, located in northeastern Ukraine about 20 miles from the Russian border. Nataliia and Solomiia fled the war in Ukraine and are now staying with a host family in Minneapolis. Nataliia's husband is still in Ukraine fighting in the war. 

Credit: Nataliia Kuchma
Solomiia Kuchma with her parents in Ukraine.

"The first few weeks, the transition was really challenging for Solomiaa. There was just a lot of emotions with mom leaving the building," said Angie Ness, principal at Lake Harriet Community School's (LHCS) lower campus. 

But Solomiia began making friends who would eat breakfast and play with her. Principal Ness would use Google Translate to say "good morning" and communicate with her. 

"She's, in a short amount of time, made a huge progress," Ness said. 

Kelly Pier, Solomiia's kindergarten teacher, remembers bringing in sunflowers — Ukraine's national flower — for her first day of class. But Pier wanted to find more ways to support Solomiia. 

Credit: Mitchell Yehl
Solomiia Kuchma sounds out words in her kindergarten class on Monday afternoon.

"I need some help. Do you know anybody who speaks Ukrainian?" Ness had asked her daughter, a student at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management. 

Her daughter had recalled an article she read on the U of M website by Safia Dockter, a UMN student studying developmental psychology, and senior researcher Renáta Tichá. 

Pier then connected with Dockter. Dockter's mother is from Ukraine and she has many family members who live there. 

Dockter started visiting Solomiia in her kindergarten class as a volunteer three times a week. 

"Her eyes basically lit up when she heard that I understand her language and I can speak it, too," Dockter said. 

Credit: Mitchell Yehl
Solomiia Kuchma works on a project during class.

Through conversations with Solomiia in Ukrainian, Dockter discovered that Solomiia was not understanding all the American customs at school. She now helps Solomiia navigate going to school in a new country. 

Just before winter break, another kindergartner joined the class, who also fled the war. Alisa is 6 years old and became fast friends with Solomiia. 

"I think it's really hard being a child, just in general, and speaking up for yourself," Dockter said. 

Dockter graduated from the U in December. Now that she has a full-time job, she visits the classroom once a week on Monday afternoons. 

"I just advocate for them and kind of their needs," Dockter said. "Talk to someone about how they're feeling — how school is and everything." 

"Children function better when they're understood," Pier said. "With everything the children have been through, I felt that was a very important thing... was to decrease that stress." 

Credit: Mitchell Yehl
Safia Dockter works with kindergarteners Solomiia and Alisa at Lake Harriet Lower Elementary School in Minneapolis, Minn.

Solomiia and Alisa also work with an ESL teacher. 

When Solomiia first started seeing Naomi Sajadi, she was speaking single words in English. 

"She wasn't speaking in sentences. About two weeks ago, she started speaking in short sentences and now she just used a complex sentence," Sajadi said. "She's progressing very quickly with using language." 

Through Dockter translating, Solomiia said she likes when Safia visits her house. Dockter has become close friends with Solomiia's family and spends time with them on the weekends. Nataliia said she has noticed a difference in her daughter. 

"The day when Safia came in school, Solomiia feel better and not cry so much," she said. 

Dockter is working with Tichá on a program that would help provide refugee students with advocates/Ukrainian translators to figure out the direct needs of the children. She's also working on a manual to help lend support to school staff. Dockter would like to see the program expand to include all refugee students with advocates they can relate to. 

"I have a little cousin in Ukraine and she's Solomiia's exact age. So seeing Solomiia here has really become indescribable," said Dockter, tearing up. "She's just this little angel that's kind of changed my life for the best. So yeah, she's definitely a little sister." 

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