BROOMFIELD, Colo. — Many Coloradans have been looking for ways — both big and small — to help the people of Ukraine as they continue to fight against Russia’s invasion of their country.
A weekly chat over Zoom may seem to fall into the “small” category at first glance, but for the Americans and Ukrainians of the “Zoom English Club,” these chats have become a profound way to stay connected and maintain their spirits.
Andrew "Andy" Lenec, who lives in Broomfield, worked in Ukraine with the Peace Corps in 2017 and 2018. During that time, he helped both young people and adults learn English, and made some lifelong friendships in the process. When his time in Ukraine came to an end, he knew he wanted to maintain his connections.
“You’d have these English clubs, where people would just come to the library or to a café and we would practice English,” Lenec recalled. “I just reached out about a year before the war started and contacted some people there, and said, ‘Hey, would you like to do this on Zoom?’ So we started doing it on Zoom.”
We first met this group on Denver7 nearly a year ago, just after Russia’s invasion began. For the past year, the Zoom English Club has taken on a different mission — more sad, but even more important.
“These meetings are kind of, like, therapeutic for me,” said Iryna Chechko from Ukraine. “People on this call, especially who are in Ukraine right now, they can feel my fear. They can feel my feelings. They understand totally and completely what I’m talking about.”
“I come to these meetings because I’ll talk to anyone who cares, just like Andy does,” added fellow Ukrainian Roman Oleksenko. “And I hope that, and I believe in, the power of spreading the word.”
The Zoom English Club meeting on the one-year mark of Russia’s invasion is on the smaller side, with just five people logged on. Other calls will see dozens.
Lenec never takes an absence personally, given that the members in Ukraine are contending with rolling blackouts and threats of raids on a daily basis. Chechko, for example, spent a call early last year with every light in her apartment turned off, so as not to be spotted by Russian planes in the sky.
“The suffering has been amazing. The trauma has been unbelievable. I mean, the stories that I hear about what kids are going through, and how they’re studying in bomb shelters, and how air raid sirens go off on a daily basis, you know, it’s just mind boggling,” Lenec said. “My overall goal, in my small way, is: don’t let the world forget about Ukraine.”
At least 8,000 civilians have been killed, and more than 13,000 have been injured in Ukraine since the invasion, according to the latest data from the United Nations human rights office, though “the true number is likely to be substantially higher.” An estimated 14 million people have been displaced from their homes, and nearly 18 million people are in “dire need” of humanitarian assistance.
“Everybody was expecting that Ukraine would crumble in three days, and instead, there was just this magnificent unification and resistance and determination,” Lenec said. “It really showed me how much the human spirit can move the human body, and really nations — entire nations — because Ukraine came together like never before in its history.”
Lenec has seen that human spirit firsthand, week after week, in his friends and students over Zoom. Some calls he keeps closed to just members of the group so they can let their guards down and reflect. Others, he intentionally opens to journalists so that Ukraine can remain top of consciousness.
The country needs our continued support, Lenec said, not just as long as the war lasts, but also through the immense rebuilding process that lies ahead. Conversations on Zoom English Club have inspired material help as well, in the form of technology and supplies.
“We are all paying for this,” Oleksenko said. “We’re paying for this with money. We’re paying for this, most importantly, with lives. And, we’re paying for this with the future.”
“We’re still fighting. We’re alive, and we need help,” Chechko added. “Don’t let the world forget about Ukraine.”