How Ukrainian parents in Montreal are navigating conversations about war with their children

Parents and teachers in Ukrainian community in Montreal on how they're trying to answer their children's questions, which isn't always easy, they say.

Anna Ritchuk tries to recall what she wanted to know as a child growing up under martial law

Children from the Andrej Sheptytsky Ukrainian School in Montreal stand along René-Lévesque Street around the corner from the U.S. consulate Friday, where a protest was held demanding a no-fly zone over Ukraine. (Submitted by Metropolitan Andrej Sheptytsky Ukrainian School in Montreal)

When Russian forces began invading Ukraine, Anna Ritchuk's nine-year-old daughter struggled to understand why the attack was happening. 

"She was trying to understand in her mind how this is possible," her mother said. 

It's not always easy for her to navigate conversations about war with her daughter, but she can relate to her experience. She grew up in Poland with her Ukrainian family while the country was under martial law in the early 1980s, and tries to recall what questions she had as a child.

"It was a Sunday morning when the head of the state announced martial law to protect Poland from Russia invading," Ritchuk said. "I remember my parents crying while the news played on the radio and TV. I didn't have many explanations, but I think I also wasn't asking a lot of questions." 

She knows her daughter's way of understanding the world, and tries to work around that. 

"The analogy we were discussing is 'Imagine if someone comes to your house, and says from now on this is going to be my house,''' she said. "She was really upset, so I explained this is sort of the situation now in Ukraine."

Ritchuk tries to strike a balance between keeping her informed while also limiting her exposure to the news on television. 

"We try to limit it for sure, since it's not healthy for her to have it constantly playing."

'She was asking why they have to suffer'

Tetiana Karpova teaches Ukrainian language and literature at the Andrej Sheptytsky Ukrainian School in Montreal, where she has been having discussions with her Grade 9 to 11 students about the situation, and teaching them about the Ukrainian soldiers who have been lost in the conflict. 

She gets a lot of questions about the EU and NATO, and why other countries won't intervene more to protect Ukraine.

Tetiana Karpova's students often ask how her mother is doing. The teacher connected with the students last weekend to talk about the situation in Ukraine and answer their questions. (Submitted by Metropolitan Andrej Sheptytsky Ukrainian School in Montreal)

"It is painful and some of them have relatives back home," she said. "I had a question from one girl, I think she's 13. She was asking me 'I don't understand why Europe cannot protect us?'" 

"She was asking why they have to suffer."

The students often ask about her mother, who works as a nurse at an orphanage in central Ukraine, where the children have been forced to shelter during air sirens. 

Her students have also been writing letters to the Ukrainian army since before the invasion began on Feb. 24, which she hopes to get to soldiers when the situation allows for it. 

Tetiana Karpova's hopes to get the student's letters to soldiers when the situation allows for it. (Submitted by Tetiana Karpova)

"I was in tears the whole time reading their writing," she said. "I hope when the victory comes, we will pass those to their destination and our heroes will read those words of encouragement, support, pride, from our children."

Sofia Safsa,15, is a student at the Ukrainian school. Because she has a better understanding of what's going on in the country, she's been trying to dispel some of the misinformation about the conflict that she hears from her classmates in public school.

"There's a lot of misinformation that sometimes is going around. A lot of people don't know much about the situation, but they've seen a post made maybe somewhere on Tik Tok or Twitter and now they think they know everything," she said.

Children from the school attended the protest at the U.S. consulate on Friday. (Submitted by Metropolitan Andrej Sheptytsky Ukrainian School in Montreal)

Many children at the Ukrainian school have also come out to recent protests alongside their parents. 

Arianna Holowka, a third generation Ukrainian, has used it as an opportunity to show her son Russian people should not be vilified.

"At one of the demonstrations, there was two ladies holding signs saying 'We are Russian, we are against the war,'" Holowka said. "It's good for them to see that too, that you can't just say all Russians are bad and that we are against the Russians. They're not all bad people and there are a lot of people against this."