DANVILLE, Calif. -
Christian Chang and his friend Yurii Kondratyk are both students who connected through a cross-cultural program called ENGin. Christian wanted to do volunteer work helping students learn English. Yurii wanted a conversation partner to improve his English language skills.
Now, though, the two students no longer talk about homework or school.
Christian lives in Danville, California. Yurii lives in Ukraine.
"I was living 10 kilometers from the capital in this city called Irpin," said Yurii, "When the war started I got lucky because my brother picked me up and drove me home."
Now, Yurii is with his parents in western Ukraine. For him, the Zoom calls with his American friend are a comfort and a lifeline out of his country's war zone.
"We even played chess one time because it kind of helps me to distract from what is going on right now," said Yurii.
Photos show what Yurii's life was like before with friends in Mariupol and Kharkiv on hikes and gatherings on the beach. The images show him and other young Ukrainian students looking carefree, smiling, and hugging.
Images of those same cities now bombed and obliterated, have made Yurii reflect on war, death, and what is most important in life.
"We were having lunch, or dinner, or breakfast with my parents, and I was just looking at them and thought that I didn't know which time is going to be our last. So I have to, you know, to appreciate this very moment because I don't know if a rocket will hit us," said Yurii.
The two young men are among thousands of American and Ukrainian youth in the ENGin program that was started in 2020 by a Katerina Manoff, a Ukrainian woman in New York.
"I'm Ukrainian. I came to the US when I was 8. I was born in Kyiv," said Manoff.
She says she started the ENGin program to help Ukrainian students who study English develop their conversational skills.
"We really started just before the pandemic. It was always designed to be an online program," said Manoff.
Manoff says the program grew to about 6,000 students and more than 5,000 volunteers including 500 in California.
They had to pause the program, thought, when many students and staff in Ukraine had to flee war zones or lost internet access. Manoff says she wants to restart the program in the coming weeks and expand it to include adults.
Some students have tried to maintain contact with their American friends.
"Building relationships has become more important than the language," said Manoff, who says the program helps her and the Ukrainian students feel they are being heard, despite feeling disconnected with life that is continuing outside of Ukraine's war zones.
"I would say feeling I'm on this alien planet where everyone is you know, just going about their lives and drinking coffee and going to birthday parties and play dates," said Manoff, who lives in New York, "And I'm kind of like a zombie walking through all this normalcy, but mentally I'm there."
Manoff says it helps her and other Ukrainians when Americans take time to listen to their stories.
Yurii's stories have changed the way Christian sees the world and war. Christian organized an event at his school to connect Yurii and another Ukrainian friend with others at San Ramon Valley High School where he is a 10th grade student.
"I thought it would be great opportunity for other students and teachers at my school to talk with the people in Ukraine just like I did," said Christian, "When I talk with Yurii, he gives me a different perspective on what I'm seeing on the news."
Yurii says the war has made him decide to change his career path and where he sees his future as a Ukrainian.
"My major is computer engineering, but I plan to switch to political economics because I feel that through that field I can make the most impact," said Yurii.
Rebuilding a country from the ashes and pain of war is a daunting task for the upcoming generation of young Ukrainians.
But the bridges of friendship and compassion which the students have built in the midst of the war, has left them with other important lessons in life.
"Right before, I was complaining about my life, like oh my god, I have so much homework, I have to do my bachelors work. I have to do this and this," said Yurii, "All those things that we worry about, it doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is human lives and the lives of your loved ones."
"Just appreciate and be grateful for what you have, because one day it all can disappear," said Yurii.
Jana Katsuyama is a reporter for KTVU. Email Jana at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @JanaKTVU or Facebook @NewsJana or ktvu.com.