Trading home for safety

War forces Ukrainian refugee to leave behind old life


photo courtesy of Leeza Nozdrachova

Wrapped in the Ukrainian flag, freshman Leeza Nozdrachova holds plants and flowers for Ivana Kupala, a Slavic holiday celebrating the summer solstice.

Eshwar Murali, Co Web Editor

“On Feb. 23, everything was fine. But on Feb. 24, at 5 a.m., I woke up and my mother and sister ran into my room. They said that the war had begun. From that moment, I began to shake terribly and cry. I watched the news all day long to somehow understand what was happening in my country. And on Feb. 25 at 6 a.m., I went to Western Ukraine,” freshman Leeza Nozdrachova said.

Nozdrachova was in her home in Kyiv when the news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine broke.

After her family fled west, her parents decided it was best to send Nozdrachova and her 21-year-old sister to Spain to stay with extended family.

But, her parents could not accompany their daughters. Her father is serving in the Ukrainian military and her mother is working as a nurse.

“I was scared. I thought that I would always be with my family, in my country. When my family said ‘bye,’ I understood my parents wanted me to be safe, but it was so hard. I am growing up very fast because I am without parents in another country,” Nozdrachova said.

But she didn’t stay in Spain for long.

Family friends in America, Benjamin and Charleen Shakman provided the family with a different option for Nozdrachova.

“I met her father when we served together in Iraq from 2005-2006. I served in a multinational division, and our biggest contingency was Ukraine,” Charleen said. “When the war escalated in February, we were already in touch with [Nozdrachova’s] family. We offered to accept the girls if it would be useful to their father. Around the same time, the Biden Administration announced the Uniting for Ukraine program.”

With the program, Nozdrachova was granted two-year temporary parole and her sister was granted a Visa to stay with the Shakmans.

When they came to America in July, they originally went to Wisconsin and lived at the Shakman’s home there until they moved to their St. Louis residence a few days before the school year started.

At first, the switch to an American school was overwhelming.

“I didn’t know what an AcLab was. It was so hard in the first days, but after that, it became easier in some things,” she said.

Over time, Nozdrachova has adjusted and warmed up to her surroundings.

“I really like this school. I always have wanted to be in an American school because I saw it in movies. Lafayette is so cool,” she said.

At LHS, Nozdrachova is enrolled in the English for Speakers of Other Languages class. The teacher, Kathleen Palecek, said she has enjoyed working with her.

“Leeza is very positive and kind. Her ability to stay focused and optimistic, even on days when unquieting news from Ukraine greets her, is inspiring,” Palacek said.

Although she likes her life in America, Nozdrachova is still anxious about the events in Ukraine.

“I am very worried [about my] family. I love them very much, and I hope everything will be fine. My heart still hurts because of the war,” Nozdrachova said.

“I really want to come back to my old life in Ukraine, but it is impossible to forget everything I saw in my country. There is no old life left, but I am a positive person, and I want people to smile so I always say ‘Glory to Ukraine’,” she said.