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Local community helps fund power banks for students in Ukraine

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BELFAST — Continuing to educate Ukrainian students through frequent Russian missile attacks is teacher Anna Maimeskul’s way of fighting back. Her class recently received 20 laptops from Regional School Unit 71 and four power stations purchased through funds raised locally in Belfast.

Maimeskul now lives in London after leaving her home in Bucha, Ukraine, but she continues to teach her students virtually. However, Russia’s bombardments often cut off electricity and force the students to shelter under the school for hours at a time, long past the time it takes for them to lose power on their cell phones and laptops, she said.

When Troy Howard Middle School seventh grade teacher Martha Conway-Cole learned about Maimeskul’s students’ needs, she approached the Regional School Unit 71 Board of Directors to ask that 20 retired laptops from the middle school be donated to the Bucha students.

Board members approved the donation in October 2022. But as the students began using the laptops, it became apparent that it would require a few more resources to keep them learning amid electricity blackouts.

Conway-Cole, Belfast City Councilor Mike Hurley and his brother Pat Hurley turned to GoFundMe to raise $1,500 from community members Dec. 19, 2022. They raised that money — nearly $1,600 — in two days to send power banks that can charge laptops and cell phones while power is out during the school day.

Maimeskul said she is thankful for the Belfast community’s quick response to support her students. She was not surprised that people from the United States were among the first nations to show support for Ukraine after the Russian invasion. She understands the U.S. to be the “nation of freedom.”

The Hurleys and Conway-Cole sent four power stations from the United States to Ukraine in late December 2022, Mike Hurley said in an email. As of Jan. 24, they had raised $2,306 from 31 donors through GoFundMe. Mike Hurley thanked the donors in a post on that webpage and said they were also able to send a solar panel, socks, 200 candles, hand warmers and candy.

“Ukraine and Bucha continue to suffer at the hands of the invaders and this shipment will help,” he wrote in a GoFundMe post. “There are many ways to help support Ukraine. Thank you each and every one for your donations, large and small that made this all possible. Slava Ukraini! (glory to Ukraine!).”

Maimeskul’s connection to Belfast started when her class was connected to Conway-Cole’s class about a year before the Russian invasion through a sort of pen pal program to help a Ukrainian class learn English, Conway-Cole explained. They started doing video exchanges and messaging virtually; the two would coordinate with each other about what types of videos they would create.

Soon, Conway-Cole and Maimeskul developed a friendship as the American English teacher helped the Ukrainian teacher improve her English, Conway-Cole said. The two were working on projects for future classes when Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2021. The last topic the two had discussed was communication between governments and their citizens, Maimaskul said.

At first, they continued to text each other, but when Russia invaded Bucha, Conway-Cole said, she lost contact with Maimeskul for about a week. The Belfast teacher had no way of knowing if Maimeskul and her family were safe or not. At times, she said, she thought something terrible had happened to them.

Conway-Cole made contact with Maimeskul in Kyiv, where the Bucha school teacher was deciding if she should leave the country. Maimeskul and her family made it to Poland, then to Germany before getting a visa to England, where she is staying currently. Conway-Cole got to meet Maimeskul in England last summer.

During that visit, Conway-Cole was able to talk with Maimeskul and learn about her students’ needs for laptops. “Anna and I both feel like it’s so important to make things as normal as they can be for the children and also not to let the war disrupt children’s education,” Conway-Cole said.

Maimeskul felt that it was important to continue teaching her students in Ukraine virtually rather than trying to find a job in England, she said. Her students, most of whom are now in ninth grade, discuss two topics every day in school: their future professions and their future studies.

“Study, that is your war against the enemy,” she said. “… You have to study, you have to be the next generation which will protect our principles and our beliefs and our country and our nationality.”

Most of her students understand this balance, she said, adding that when they received the RSU 71 laptops, her students realized that people from across the globe care about their education. She called the laptops a “weapon.”

The war has forced her students to mature quickly, she said. Last march, one of her students went missing. People searched for the missing student, without success. Maimeskul was later informed that her student and her family had been shot by Russians.

To remember their classmate, they will leave her desk empty until they graduate, she said. Maimeskul does not like to think about the idea of losing another student but she knows that many are still at risk because of the ongoing bombardments.

As a fellow teacher, when Conway-Cole sees pictures and watches videos of Ukrainian teachers continuing to work and teach children through Russian bombardments, she said she is inspired by their determination and resiliency.

Maimeskul never thought of herself as a soldier, but said that when she started teaching again after the Russian invasion, she felt like a phoenix. Though her students will never be the same as they were before the Russian invasion, she wants them to understand that nothing can break them or stop them. She said she and her family will be ready to restore their country when Russian bombardments end.

“When you thought that everything was out for you, that this is the end, you were sure that this is the end, but then you can continue working, you can continue moving on and you understand that this is the task you have to do for your children,” she said.

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