As Katerina Manoff considered on a recent morning how the effort she started three years ago has swelled in size and importance since the conflict in Ukraine began, she talked about the students in that country who don’t run when the air raid sirens scream.
“I have some students — and I don’t encourage this — but they don’t go into the bomb shelters,” Manoff told me. “They sit and they keep doing their sessions. They say, ‘This is how I fight Russia. They are not going to make me afraid. They are not going to break me.’ That’s the dedication of my students. It’s not just like, ‘Oh, yeah, my mom told me English would be useful now.’ It’s this act of rebellion. It’s ‘I don’t want to be part of Russia. I’m not going to be speaking Russian. I’m going to be speaking English.’”
Often when we hear about how Americans are helping Ukrainians, the focus falls on military aid. But through a volunteer effort, thousands of people across the United States have been working one-on-one with Ukrainians in an attempt to arm them with a different kind of weapon: English fluency. The effort aims to help open educational and job opportunities to them and empower them to connect to an international community.
Manoff, who left her native Ukraine at the age of 8 and now lives in Rockville, Md., with her husband and two young children, founded the nonprofit organization ENGin in 2020 after mentoring a female high school student in Ukraine. As Manoff tells it, the youth was one of the country’s top students and, like many of her peers, had studied English for years in school. But the first time the two met over Zoom, Manoff was surprised to find that the student couldn’t speak the language. She then discovered that the country ranked low for English proficiency among European nations.
The idea for ENGin came to her then. Manoff, who had worked in schools, decided she wanted to create a program that would allow any Ukrainian student who wanted to improve their English to connect free with a real person who could help them.
“I’m not inventing teaching English,” she said. “If people have money, they can hire a private tutor. The problem is most people in Ukraine do not have money, and that was true even before the war. What we’re doing is unique and unprecedented in the sense that we are offering radical accessibility. It is open to everyone.”
It is open to 10-year-old students who have found their education interrupted by chaos. It is open to 20-year-old students who are dreaming of the jobs they want to pursue when the conflict ends. It is open to 30-year-olds who were climbing career ladders when they had to flee their homeland and are now displaced, living in countries where speaking Ukrainian won’t help them.
Before Russia’s invasion, ENGin had served about 6,000 Ukrainians. It has now served about 15,000. One of them is a young man who schedules his sessions at 1 a.m. his time, because that’s when he’s most likely to have power. Another is a new mother who has started to bring her baby to the sessions so the child can also hear the language spoken.
Manoff said she hopes to see the program serve at least 100,000 people. She also worries she won’t be able to keep offering it free or at all. It takes a staff to screen applications, interview participants and coordinate connections, and that takes steady funding, which the organization has not secured.
“It’s really hard. I stay up at night and cry,” Manoff said. “But you can’t quit, because all these people are sending you stories about how it has changed their life.”
When the conflict started, Manoff considered shutting down the effort. The question that nagged at her: “Is English still important now when all these horrible things are happening?” But ENGin staff members, most of whom live in Ukraine, and students convinced her the effort was more important than ever. They reminded her that it’s not just language that is being exchanged.
That’s the thing about talking with someone regularly — connections form. And the effort has seen thousands of human connections take shape across time zones and cultures. The organization has drawn more than 13,500 English-speaking volunteers. Most live in the United States, and hundreds reside in the Washington region.
Jeff Bloch, who is 59 and lives in Bethesda, Md., meets weekly with a 30-year-old man named Maxim who remains in Kyiv. They have talked about the conflict. They have also talked about books, TV shows and artificial intelligence. They have done that even when it has meant working around unpredictable conditions.
“In the early days, the electricity went out a lot,” Bloch said. Sometimes, that meant they had to cancel their session. Other times, Maxim used what power he had left on his phone to talk. “He still wanted to connect for at least a few minutes.”
Susan Ann Silverstein, a retired civil rights attorney who lives in the Washington region, talks weekly with Viktoriia Yermolych, a Ukrainian woman who used to work in the legal field before her city came under attack and she was forced to flee to Germany.
Some days, they have talked about dumplings and Disney. Other days, they have discussed politics and legal systems. One day, Silverstein listened as Yermolych spoke about how she was struggling to find housing.
“She said, ‘I don’t know what’s worse — not knowing where I’m going to live in two weeks or having bombs fall around me,’” Silverstein recalled.
Silverstein said even though she is helping Yermolych improve her English, she also benefits from their exchanges.
“As someone who spent her life trying to make change in the world from a very high level, I think that being able to work with people one-on-one teaches you something about issues that you can’t learn from reading the newspaper, reading a book or watching TV,” she said. “I feel like I now have family connected to the front page of the newspaper and to what’s happening in Ukraine.”
As the conflict draws on, refugees can start to feel forgotten, she said. But that’s not something Yermolych has to worry about.
“She knows,” Silverstein said, “that there is this one person way out in the United States who never forgets about her.”