Bearing Witness for Ukraine – StarTribune.com

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She carried what she could when she fled Kyiv.

What she had to leave behind is almost more than she can take.

Ruth Karnowski, a 71-year-old teacher from Little Falls, Minnesota, packed a bag and grabbed her iPad. Classes would resume once their 6-year-old students were safe. When they got to safety.

Miss K, as her students call her, has been teaching at the Kyiv International School for around 12 years. Even through an iPad screen, her lessons are a link to a safe and normal place for the children scattered across the map by the Russian invasion.

During the lessons there are stories to read and songs to sing. The children don’t need to know if their teacher is sad or scared, or that the only classroom available on their escape route one day was a drafty hallway in a Lvov pub.

“It doesn’t matter how I feel. When these little faces light up on my screen, I smile and say, ‘Today we’re going to read a story,'” said Karnowski, speaking from Zoom from a temporary apartment in Košice, Slovakia, where classes continue. “We talk math. We study what’s in the sky for science. We just have fun together.”

“You are my little potato, you are my little potato,” her students sing along in English. It’s the class’s favorite song this year. “You are my little potato, they dug you up. You come from underground.”

“The world is big,” the song tells us. “So big, so very big.” These little ones have already seen too much of this big world.

“Miss K, Miss K,” a little girl called out in class one day, looking straight at the camera. “You will destroy my beautiful city.”

The other children fell silent and listened.

“I said, ‘Let’s talk a little bit. But you’re safe for now,'” Karnowski said. “‘You are safe and I love you.'”

She didn’t see the little girl again for two weeks.

“Just on Monday, I turned on my zoom and got my tea and I was like, ‘Good morning, Miss K!'” Karnowski said. The little girl and her family had made it to the relative safety of western Ukraine. “Thank you God.”

Another student was in a convoy heading towards the Hungarian border when the shelling began.

“Mom, don’t worry,” he said. It was a story his mother later told his teacher. “Don’t worry, Spider Man will save us.”

Then, just to be sure, he pretended to be Spider Man and tried to save everyone from the tanks.

When class ends and the little faces disappear from the screen one by one, Karnowski stays online to check for updates from her friends back home. A thumbs up on Facebook is proof of life these days.

Her boss checked in after trekking her dog for 27 hours in the freezing cold to reach the Polish border.

A friend – a fellow Minnesota woman who married a Ukrainian – posted pictures of the spring lambs she still tends at the family farm outside of Kyiv. She watches the dirt road leading to her house and expects to see Russian tanks any day.

For days, Karnowsi waited for news from a friend who was desperately trying to get her grandmother, parents and two children to safety after their home was destroyed. Her husband had joined the Defense Forces, their car broke down, and the family slept in basements and subway tunnels trying to protect themselves from Russian mortars.

“When you’ve found a Ukrainian friend, you’ve found a friend for life,” Karnovsky said. “You are the kindest and most generous people you will ever meet.”

The father of one of her former students, an American citizen, has been driving non-stop between Poland and Ukraine for four weeks. He brings in truckloads of groceries and medicines and drives people away who need to be taken to safety.

Andrea, another friend, has started a grassroots campaign that directs donations to where they are needed. Her Facebook group, Helping Ukrainians with Andrea, raised the money for car repairs that helped the stranded family get to safety, Karnowski said.

Karnowski is haunted by what she left behind. Your home. The kids she taught 12 years ago who are now old enough to don a uniform and join the Defense Forces. Her beloved French bulldog Coco, who was too fragile to travel, stayed behind with friends. Coco is safe. That’s how safe everyone is in Ukraine.

The news from Ukraine is difficult to hear. The photos and videos are painful to look at. Karnowski has just one request of her Minnesota compatriots.

“Don’t look away,” she said.

If Ukrainians can endure this grief, at least we can bear witness.

And when that’s over, Ruth Karnowski will return to Kyiv to help rebuild everything Putin tried to destroy.

“I will do what I can and I ask others to do the same,” she said. “Use your talents, even if it’s just putting up a flyer or calling your congressman.”

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