At a boarding school in the Rocky Mountains, a group of Eastern European teenagers made crepes to raise money for the millions of people whose lives have been uprooted by Russia’s war on Ukraine.
The students, studying at a pine-dotted campus in northern New Mexico, worry from a world away about their relatives in the war-torn region.
Masha Novikova, a 19-year-old student from central Ukraine, spent the night before on the phone with NGOs trying to get her mother and three younger siblings to Germany, and arguing with her mother about which would be more dangerous: staying put or hitting the road.
Novikova said she was dealing with a lot of tasks “teenagers do not usually face,” as she grapples with the reality that her family’s home might not exist in the way it once did.
“It ruins you from the inside,” she said.
At the United World College campus, teenagers from 95 countries study as part of a network of schools dedicated to fostering understanding between cultures. The Russian-speaking students, including some from overseas as well as the sons and daughters of immigrants, have been united in horror over the invasion of Ukraine.
On a recent Saturday, a half-dozen of them gathered in a dormitory kitchen to make blini — the Eastern European-style crepes — to sell to fellow students.
“It’s so hard to focus on (school) with exams approaching. We’re still high school students. We’re still trying to live our lives and we have a bunch of high school level issues and suddenly, like, war intervenes,” said Alexandra Maria Gomberg Shkolnikova, 18, of Mexico City, whose family is from Russia and Ukraine.
United World College officials are exploring options for students from Russia and Ukraine to stay on campus or with alumni families if it’s not safe to travel after graduation, said Victoria Mora, president of UWC in the U.S.
Students at the school are selected in part on their interest in world affairs, desire to share their cultures and empathy for others. UWC operates 18 schools across four continents, including the one in the U.S. Novikova learned about the program while on a volunteer trip in Irpin, Ukraine, where she met a student from the United World College of India.
The morning after her night on the phone, Novikova’s eyes were heavy as she walked to the dorm from a cafeteria building known as “the castle” — once a Gilded Age hotel. Along the way she met one of her closest friends, a student from Russia.
The Russian student declined to be interviewed, citing censorship laws implemented by her country at the war’s start.
“My Russian friend, she understands my mentality and she understands how I feel,” said Novikova, adding that the war has brought them closer. “Of course, there are many conversations we hold these days about politics and about the future of our countries.”
The pair joined their fellow Russian speakers in the kitchen of the female dorm where they snacked, helped cook, and bantered in between texting with their parents and checking the news. Some boys from other dorms trickled in, an Italian and a Spaniard. Girls from Texas and France also lined up for the snacks as the cooking continued in a mix of Russian and English.
By late afternoon, dozens of students had bought blini, with toppings like jam and chocolate spread. A plastic container of cash piled up to more than $300, a humble contribution to humanitarian relief to be split between three hospitals in Ukraine, including the one where Novikova’s father works as a surgeon.
Novikova was afraid of her family being bombed or shelled if they stayed in the country, where her father has been operating on soldiers wounded on the eastern front of the war. Her mother was worried about the family getting shot on the road to Poland if they left.
The blini session is hardly an escape for Novikova, whose phone kept buzzing with messages. But for a few hours she was stressed out with her friends, instead of being stressed out alone in her room.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” said Sophia Pavlenko, a 19-year-old Russian citizen, as she led the blini cooking.
“What doesn’t kill you gives you trauma,” Novikova said.