In 2006, two former Wichita State students traveled to Ukraine to teach for the Peace Corps.
Locals asked if the Americans knew Britney Spears. They helped them learn a language. They welcomed them with foods such as borscht and layered salads with beets, eggs and mayonnaise.
Some were wary of Americans, suspicions remaining from the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union. These visitors, Matt and Stephanie (Whitcomb) Clark, sought to make a good impression.
“They wanted us to be part of their family,” said Stephanie, a 2004 broadcast journalism graduate who played volleyball for WSU from 2000-03. “They would sit with us for hours and help teach us certain things. They wanted us to be a part of who they were. I feel like Ukraine is our home.”
That home, their friends, and their warm memories are in turmoil as the Russian invasion wears on in their adopted country. They rely on social media to hear from former students, host families and friends, as they try to sort good information from bad and bring attention to the crisis.
“It rips your heart out,” Matt said. “We know … people pretty well that are just in a horrible situation. We feel very connected to them.”
The Clarks live in Fort Collins, Colorado, where Matt works in health care and business development, and Stephanie is a licensed clinical social worker. Son Aubyn is 10, and daughter Anya is 8. Anya is a common name in Ukraine.
Matt, who graduated in 2004 with a degree in English literature, played basketball for the Shockers from 2000 to 2004.
From 2006 to 2008, the couple taught English to students from fifth grade to high school in Ukraine; Stephanie in a school that emphasized math and science, Matt in a school focused on arts and language. After training in Uzyn, they moved to Shostka, a city of around 74,000 people within two hours of the Russian border.
Borscht, a soup made with red beetroots, remains on their family menu every six weeks or so.
“One of their expressions was always, ‘Open soul, open heart,’” Matt said. “So incredibly warm and kind. A lot of our time was spent around a table, sharing a meal and talking. They love to dance. They love sports. They’re highly educated, as a population.”
While in Ukraine, the Clarks saw the difficulties of life as a Russian neighbor. They kept a bag with money and medicine prepared in case they needed to leave quickly. They saw demonstrations and heard the stories about the conflict between the countries. In 2014, they followed the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
“There were times when we there, 2006-08, I thought we were going to be evacuated,” Stephanie said. “We weren’t sure whether or not the political turn would be something that would be safe for us. Ukraine is a nation that’s been fighting for their independence, really, since the fall of the Soviet Union. When I was watching everything unfold, it was surreal. I didn’t think it was going to escalate to this point.”
They are eager to get the word out and direct people to reliable information and reputable sources for donations to refugee camps.
“Our heart is there, and our focus is there,” Matt said.
Former Shocker basketball star escapes
Another former Shocker has seen the effect of the Russian invasion of Ukraine firsthand. Toure Murry, who played basketball for the Shockers from 2008-12, played for BC Ternipol in the Ukranian basketball league this winter and escaped the country as the invasion unfolded.
“There was risk of going to the Poland border and getting sent back. There were no guarantees,” Murry told USA Today. “So, we took a leap of faith going through Romania. It worked out in terms of getting across the border. But going through the situation, we had no idea if we would get out.”
Murry said he drove four-plus hours in a van with teammates to the Romanian border to take a train to Bucharest.
“At that moment, you’re going crazy: ‘Will I ever see my family again?’” Murry told The Wichita Eagle. “We didn’t know where the Russians were. They were shooting innocent civilians that were just driving on the road. They’ve got tanks. They’ve got bombs that were dropping out of nowhere.”
He flew home to Houston from Amsterdam. He also had to worry about Yanick, his brother, an assistant coach for a team in Kyiv. Yanick was able to escape to Poland, Toure told USA Today.