Art from war-torn Ukraine

NENA staff member organizes fundraiser selling student artwork from Poltava

Ukrainian students stuck in a war are still daring to create. 
Through a fundraiser organized by Nokomis East Neighborhood Association Communications Manager Sarah Friedman, people can buy their works of art and support their school.
The artwork is on display at the Minneapolis Bouldering Project (1433 West River Road N). The cost for framed pieces is $50 framed, and $30 for unframed; donations welcome. “Please consider purchasing art from students who are working for a brighter future,” said Friedman.
“It’s so powerful to me to see that kids are kids no matter where they are or their circumstances.”
Last peace corp volunteer evacuated
Friedman joined the Peace Corps in 2011 and was sent to Poltava, Ukraine. “My favorite part about Peace Corps is the country asks for volunteers and requests them to work in different aspects. Ukraine is trying to join the European Union (EU), and one of the requirements is a certain percent of the population needs to speak English. They were requesting English language teachers. I did that as my day job, but I also worked with spreading awareness about HIV, built a ramp to my school so people with disabilities could go inside, and created student-led afterschool programs. 
“Of course I learned Surzhyk while I was there (a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian), but I also learned the importance of nonverbal communication. I brought my violin, picked up the guitar while I was there, and learned to cook. I think a lot can be said with words, but more can be said with actions.
“I learned a lot about teaching and found a passion for it there. I strongly believe education builds a future, so learning how to learn and learning how to teach are some of the most valuable skills a person can know.”
Friedman grew up in North Carolina and had never made a snowman before. So, her Ukrainian mentor and fellow teacher Lidiia and her students went outside and made one with her.
While she was there, Russia annexed Crimea and took over some of the east.
Friedman was the last Peace Corp volunteer to leave Ukraine in 2014 when they were evacuated. She almost refused to leave.
Friedman considers Ukraine to be her second home, and counts the people she met there as some of her closest friends.
She observed, “2022 wasn’t the start of the war. It was the escalation of the war I fled in 2014.”
Upon returning to the U.S., she taught for about five years at public schools in North Carolina and a foster home in Detroit. Then she followed her husband to Minnesota in 2019 when he got a job at 3M, and she pursued a master’s degree at the Humphrey School of Public Policy in nonprofit management. Friedman joined the NENA staff in 2022.
“There are a lot of parallels between Peace Corps and working with the neighborhood,” observed Friedman. “Both are about creating and learning about community and finding ways to work with different organizations to make the biggest longest lasting changes possible. It’s a lot of finding problems and finding creative solutions on a smaller budget. It pushes you to think creatively about how to make the best changes you can.”
Lidiia is now a school principal for children ages 6-17. “I told Lidiia I had a crazy idea, and she made it happen,” said Friedman. “We’re a great team like that.”
They held a school-wide art competition, and Lidiia sent electronic images of the art to Friedman, who printed them out and framed them. She approached a few local museums and considered coffee shops, and then settled on the Minneapolis Bouldering Project. From the minute she told them about her idea, they were enthusiastic and “amazing to work with,” said Friedman. 
All of the proceeds raised will go directly to the school’s food pantry and school repairs such as desks and chairs. This ensures that all students will be able to have a place to sit in class and have food in their stomachs, even if they may not be able to afford food.
Currently, in Poltava, Ukraine, in a city the size of St. Louis Park, air sirens warning that Russian missiles may be coming occur three to four times per day. Everyone in the town is forced to run to their building basements, which are often unheated, until the warnings finish, according to Friedman. Air raid sirens happen throughout the day and night.
Lidiia turned the basement of the school into an air raid shelter so children may continue to learn, even through the war. The school’s air raid shelter is one of the safest places to be in their town. In doing this, she had to finish the basement, raise money for chairs and desks, and ensure the ventilation was good enough for so many people to be underground for so long. 
The school used to provide breakfast and lunch for 700 students, but because of the sirens, it has been increasingly problematic to cook for so many students. Students are now expected to bring their own food to school. This has put an extra burden on families who used to rely on school lunches. Lidiia is now raising money for food and small school repairs.
Friedman’s prior fundraiser efforts helped pay for paint in the basement so kids don’t breathe in toxic dust, and for extra chairs so students literally have a place to sit in the basement.
They were also able to buy a printer/copy machine, laminator, and speaker (for safety announcements). “Lidiia is a genius and instead of asking for money for textbooks, because she doesn’t know how many children will be fleeing to the area, she simply copies and laminates and shares these textbooks with students,” said Friedman.
Friedman’s Russian tutor fled to Bulgaria. “She’s retired and felt it was safer in another country. She described standing in American Red Cross lines and not having heat in the winter,” stated Friedman.
Oleg, one of her students, fell in love with a Russian woman and moved to Russia before the war escalated. Then he was trapped. He lived there a full year without being caught, but officials tracked him because he was wiring money to his family. He’s now in prison.
“One thing that really has affected me is how close the Internet brings us. I sent photos of how downtown Minneapolis was lit up in Ukrainian colors to my friends, and they were so surprised and happy that Minneapolis did that. They thought Americans forgot them,” said Friedman. “I feel like any small thing we do here to raise awareness or show solidarity goes a long way. I feel like right now they’re bombarded with negative news, and if there’s anyway to show we stand with them, it helps build morale.”
Email Friedman at or go to the Linktree page at  


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