GRAND RAPIDS. Mich. (WOOD) — Sitting next to three of his classmates at a green lunch table in an empty cafeteria, 11th grader Hlib Kuzmenko reached into his backpack and pulled out a blue and yellow flag. The three to his right were noticeably surprised to see the flag of Ukraine. Each began to gently help drape it over the table. It is one of the many similarities these once strangers all shared — home.

Now, all four are also high schoolers at West Catholic in Grand Rapids. As they sat together, talking about their journey, they agreed that coming to America is a dream come true.

“Our grandparents and our parents, it’s all about, ‘oh, the States. The land of possibilities,'” Kuzmenko said.

“It was just a dream from my childhood that I want to come to USA,” fellow junior Fedir Smyrnov said. “And I’m here and I’m happy.”

11th Graders Sviatoslav Shut (left) and Fedir Smyrnov drape themselves in the Ukrainian flag and smile on the first day of class/Courtesy: West Catholic

School president and CEO Cynthia Kneibel is retiring at the end of the first semester. She made it her final mission to make sure these students have the opportunity for an education.

“We’ve all seen what’s happening in the Ukraine and actually reading — this was last spring, maybe early spring — reading about how there were some schools that were bombed and that education for these kids was becoming a problem,” Kneibel said. “I thought, well, how can West Catholic help?”

After getting in touch with the United State Department of State, Knebeil found a representative in Ukraine that helped arrange for these students to get out of harms way and into a place of learning.

“Very boldly, I offered to take as many as 20 students, thinking ‘I will find a way to make that number work,'” Kneibel remembers.

At first, five young people from Ukraine were selected but one young woman stayed behind with her mother who was needed on the frontlines of the fight as a nurse. It’s those kinds of decisions these other four kids had to make in order to find safety — leave their loved ones behind and accept the risks the future may hold for them.

“I’m really worrying about my families, about my friends, and it’s, so it’s so hard, really hard [so] living in this, in this situation,” 11th grader Sviatoslav Shut said.

The “situation” has put the four of them nose-close to war for the last six months. Three of the four have been forced from their homes because of bombings and Russian occupation. Each of them carrying the effects the sounds of war create — from the explosions to the sirens.

“I have an app on my telephone and I know that, now we have the air alert and so, I and my parents and my sister are going to shelter,” Shut says as he asks Smyrnov in Ukrainian if his translation was correct.

“During the first month I wasn’t allowed to go there, so we didn’t have alarms, we just went under the stairways,” Kuzmenko said about living near Kyiv. “The first time we went there, our mother told, okay, I don’t wanna die under the stairways, so I’m gonna be in my room. It would be better to die there than in the basement.”

Each of them has left grandparents, parents, siblings and friends behind and have joined four generous host families in West Michigan.

“We’re really blessed with the people who stepped up and they have already, you know, taken to their heart these kids and are treating them like their own,” Kneibel said, “And, you know, making sure that the kids get what they need.”

When the school picked them up from the airport in Chicago, what they needed was to eat. Out of any restuarant in the Windy City or any cuisine, the four agreed they wanted — McDonalds. Although, they all now agree the hamburgers taste better in Ukraine. Now, it’s about making sure their needs are met to learn.

The four Ukrainian students after landing at O’Hare Airport in Chicago/Courtesy: West Catholic HS

“I’m gonna be like a sponge. I’m gonna take as much English as I can. I’m gonna live like American for year,” Kuzmeno said. “I’m gonna to just take the culture, take the English, take the food, so I just know how people leave here.”

Kneibel knows that while this is a chance for these students to find a safe place to learn, it has also opened a unique window for them to teach as well.

“Being able to get to know, have our student body still in west Michigan, get to see firsthand what’s happening in the Ukraine, through the eyes of these students is an invaluable lesson,” Kneibel said. “These are kids that are very academically driven and they’re looking for nothing more than being able to study, being able to … continue on in their education. So that they can go on to the university or college.”

Freshman Sofiia Lytvyniuk smiles on the first day of class/Courtesy: West Catholic

And as they sat around that school lunch table talking or goofing around in the hallways ahead of their first day of class, it become abundantly clear what their most immediate need was. More than learning, teaching, or even McDonalds, they were being gifted the opportunity to just be kids. The smile on their faces was all the gratitude need to know that need was being met.