Students Worry About Families Overseas Amid Russia-Ukraine War


Isabella Kohout

Senior Isabella Kohout, her sister, and a family friend at a rally for Ukraine in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village on March 13th

Lauren Atchley, Staff Writer

Growing up in Lake Forest, senior Isabella Kohout was never far from her Ukrainian roots.  Her grandparents were immigrants from former Soviet republic, and Kohout grew up speaking the language and going to a Ukrainian Saturday School in Chicago’s West Town.  

“My family basically created a Ukrainian community here,” she said. “It’s pretty tight knit.”

Zhydachiv (red marker) relative to other cities in Ukraine– only 63 km from Lviv, which has been bombed many times, beginning last week.

However, these days this community’s “tight-knit” nature is coming together not out of celebration for their culture, but to support their friends and family members enduring the conditions overseas, and to protest the actions taken by Russian President Vladmir Putin since the Russian invasion of Ukraine at the end of February. 

As for her own family in Ukraine, most live on the Western side which was previously far from the invading Russian force, but has since been bombed, damaging cities close to Zhydachiv where Kohout’s grandmother grew up.

Her primary communication with her relatives has been through  Instagram direct messages,  but her grandmother  has some communication with her uncle, who is a Ukrainian diplomat, stationed in the Embassy in Poland.

As she opened pictures her cousin sent her, Kohout recognized the ruins of  some of the cities and shops she used to frequent.  Though she is currently safe in Poland, Kohout’s cousin said, “We are waiting for the victory of Ukraine…I really want to go home.”

“It’s horrible what’s going on– people talk about the five steps of grief, but for all Ukranians now, there aren’t really steps,” Kohout said. “We’re just always in it because there isn’t time to go through the process with the constant murder of our people and destruction of our cities.”

Recently, her family in Ukraine has been placed in bomb shelters, though another uncle and his son have been placed on the Territorial Defense Unit and are in charge of resettling refugees from Eastern Ukraine.

A cousin in Ukraine sent her a video of the air raid sirens and said, “We are safe, every day we have air [raid] alarms.  I worry about Lviv, but I hope that everything will be ok.”

Isabella with her two cousins; Veronica (far left) and Sofia (right). Veronica is in Zhydachiv, Lviv Oblast, Ukraine. Sofia is with her mother and father in Poland where her father is stationed as a diplomat at the Embassy of Ukraine.

While Kohout is thankful her family is safe for the time being, she said it is hard not to think about the war as an attack on a culture she loves so deeply.

“My culture was always preserved there, and my family was safe, but now we just don’t know,” she said.

However, Kohout said she and her family are uplifted by the efforts nearby communities have made in order to support Ukraine.  For example, Lake Bluff recently had a concert dedicated to Ukraine, where all proceeds went towards Ukrainian cities and efforts to rebuild. She has also attended many rallies in Chicago to support Ukraine.  

Kohout’s mother is also a yoga teacher and will be holding a class at Mickey Finn’s on Sunday in order to raise donations for Medical Aid in Ukraine.

“It’s really beautiful to see the world rallying around Ukraine,” she said.

Other Lake Forest students, such as senior Ally Galiene are worried about family in neighboring countries. Galiene’s family is originally from Russia and its bordering country, Belarus.  While her background may be with Russia, her opinions certainly are not, she said.  

Galiene and her family in Belarus

“Seeing what Russia is doing just shows how selfish and power-hungry Putin is,” Galiene said. “He is taking unnecessary steps to get what he wants, and it’s truly heartbreaking.”

Parts of Galiene’s family, including her great-grandmother, are still living in Belarus, but “the government won’t tell them anything [about what’s going on],” she said.

Like Kohout, Galiene is thankful for her family’s safety, but worries that Russia may try to involve Belarus in some way.  For the time being, she, among many others, will continue to support Ukraine and anyone else affected by what she called a “genocide” overseas.

Kohout and Galiene both said they have nothing but praise for the current president of Ukraine, Vladimir Zelensky.

“Zelensky has done an amazing job supporting his people and keeping everyone in a positive mindset,” Galiene said.  “Their military efforts against Russia are incredible, and though Putin is hard to deal with, he handles it very well.”

Kohout’s family is nervous about what the future holds for Ukraine, but they have no intentions of giving up on their country and culture.

“For such a long time our culture was hidden, but we’re going to fight for our culture and I have complete confidence it will be preserved,” she said.

If you’d like to do your part in supporting Kohout, her family, and Ukraine as a whole, go to Mickey Finns in Libertyville on Sunday, May 1st for a 10 A.M. yoga class led by Kohout’s mom.  Recommended donation amount is $25, and all proceeds will go towards Medical Aid in Ukraine.  If you are a senior, Kohout would love for everyone to wear their Decision Day shirts!