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Meet Valentyna Kuznetsova

Whose inspiring journey from war-torn Ukraine led her to Beyond Literacy

On February 24, Valentyna Kuznetsova’s life changed forever. Living near the city of Sumy in Northeastern Ukraine, Valentyna and her family awoke to gunshots and airstrikes outside their home. Russian tanks and troops filled the streets as violent warfare broke out. Located only 10 kilometers from the Russian border, Sumy was one of the first cities captured during the invasion. Scared and confused, the family sheltered in their basement sleeping in shifts for safety.  

In March, Ukraine established “green corridors” to help civilians, mostly women and children, evacuate their homes safely. Seeking refuge from the attacks in Sumy, Valentyna and her 9-year-old son, Stanislav, boarded a passenger bus to Poland. The traumatic journey was fraught with violence and devastation including collapsed bridges and roads, limited access to gas, and ongoing warfare despite the government issued ceasefire. “The journey from East to West Ukraine was long and difficult for a small child. We were very scared and alone,” Valentyna said.

After seeking refuge in Poland for a few months, Valentyna and Stanislav were hopeful they would be able to return to their home in Ukraine. Longtime residents of Sumy, Valentyna’s family was deeply rooted in their village’s workforce. Valentyna, who has a master’s degree in accounting, had managed Sumy’s local bank branch for over 20 years. She was heartbroken to learn her family’s home and community had been devastated by the attacks.  

Fearing for Stanislav’s education, safety, and mental health, Valentyna reached out to family already living in America. Her mother and husband encouraged Valentyna to make the journey without them. Knowing they would not be able to survive such difficult travel, they stayed behind with their beloved pets and the remaining elderly community who were unable to relocate due to health concerns and limited resources.  

Valentyna, along with young Stanislav, traveled to Philadelphia where they moved into her sister-in-law’s family apartment. Valentyna and her son knew little of America, the English language, or how to survive in big city that was so different from her village. “In Poland, it was just me and my son in a country I didn’t know. Here in America, I have help. We can feel safe.”  

Back in Sumy, Valentyna exuded an outgoing, bubbly personality. She took pride in knowing her customers at the bank and engaging them in conversation. Arriving in the U.S., she has struggled with not speaking English, feeling like that part of her identity was stolen from her. Motivated to improve her quality of life in Philadelphia, Valentyna sought out virtual English proficiency classes and enrolled at Beyond Literacy last September. 

When Valentyna first began classes at BeLit, she was scared to speak in English and worried about making mistakes. Her ESL teacher, Shaina, quickly eased her worries and gave her the confidence she needed to start participating in class. “When I speak with Shaina, I don’t feel scared because she always helps me and makes me feel good in my lessons,” Valentyna said. “I like that she is hands-on and really involved with her students.”  

What Valentyna appreciates most about her BeLit classes are her fellow classmates who make her feel part of a community again. “I look forward to my lessons because for those three hours, I can speak to people. We laugh, talk about our dreams, and forget about our problems.”  

Since starting classes, Valentyna’s English skills have greatly improved. Her teacher, Shaina says Valentyna’s willingness to take risks and her improved confidence are inspiring. “At first, she got discouraged easily; but she’s had patience with herself and her learning process,” she said. “Now, she’s vocal, candid, encouraging, and positive. She knows when she needs to ask for help and when she can trust herself to figure something out independently.” 

Valentyna has found comfort and routine in her new home. Relieved to discuss more than the war, she now shares her progress in English classes with her family at the dinner table each night. She also feels peace knowing that Stanislav is adjusting positively to life in America. Since starting 3rd grade, he has made new friends, enjoys reading books, is playing sports and is quickly learning the language. “My son is happy every day and I’m really thankful for his teacher.” 

After only a few months with BeLit, Valentyna has been able to progress in her studies and move into the Advanced English level. Her goal is to soon return to a career in accounting here in Philadelphia. Valentyna believes that speaking fluent English will mean more than learning a new language – it will be a pathway to a better opportunity and a fresh start in a supportive community. She explains, “Everyone has problems, but we can choose life. BeLit is very important to me. BeLit is real love.”  

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