Jessica Vartanov is a 17-year-old Long Islander, with a determination to impact more than just Long Island. A rising senior at Jericho Senior High School, she is bringing to the East End a passion to help Eastern Europe amid the tumultuous times in the region.
To some students, good grades or post-season honors for their athletic performance is enough. But to Vartanov, this is just one part of the equation. Like many Americans, beginning in February, Vartanov was horrified by the terrors faced by the Ukrainian people as their homeland was attacked by Russian military forces.
“I saw innocent families being torn apart, women and children being forced to leave their husbands behind as well as their homes,” she recalls. “The sadness on these peoples’ faces broke my heart and inspired me to take action and be the change that others wished to see in the world.”
While it may be a hemisphere away, this conflict hits close to home for Vartanov, whose family has Eastern European roots. Her family fled the Soviet Union from the satellite nation of Georgia, coming to the United States in pursuit of freedom and opportunity. Vartanov is fluent in Russian, given her family ties, and sees herself in the millions of families who have been forced to flee their war-torn homeland.
“After seeing many Ukrainian families flee to America and other nations, I realized that many people faced a language barrier,” Vartanov says. “That’s when I recognized that me speaking Russian could help so many people overcome their language struggles. My cultural ties made me feel extremely connected to the families, and I truly felt their pain throughout all the violence.”
After learning that some of the Ukrainian refugee families would be relocated to New York and the continental United States, Vartanov saw an opportunity to help. She formed Global Ukraine, an organization geared at helping Ukrainian refugee children acclimate to life in the United States.
“I worked extremely hard to create an organization that can reach people on the other side of the globe and truly impact such a large group of individuals,”Vartanov says. “Global Ukraine’s goal in the future is to expand the initiative and provide even more services to people that are suffering and in need of our help.”
Given her fluency in Russian, a similar language to Ukrainian, Vartanov’s asset has been communication and comforting school-aged students who have begun a new life in America. She meets via Zoom with children, helping to bridge the language gap between Russian and English, which is no small feat. With so few individuals in her age-range speaking Ukrainian or Russian, she has been primarily working alone, with support from her family and her friends.
In July, Vartanov was presented with the opportunity to make an impact in a different way. Feeling inspired, she traveled to Poland, where refugees were being provided shelter and assistance. She saw this as an opportunity to make a difference, so she packed her bags and departed for a two-week trip to the Ukrainian-Polish border, where she spoke with the families and children about their experiences, reassured them that all would be OK, and got face-to-face experience with the real toll of the war in Ukraine.
“During my visit to Poland, I first went to a warehouse owned by a Ukrainian charity where I created first aid kits for people on the frontline and for any families fleeing their homes,” she recalls. “I then traveled to the Ukrainian-Polish border where I distributed the kits to families where I saw families coming off buses from Ukraine, carrying what few belongings they could hold in their arms. I noticed how the evacuees’ faces lit up and they displayed genuine happiness when I gave them the kits which warmed my heart and made the long trip completely worth it.”
While the primary focus in relief efforts has been physical wellbeing, Vartanov realized that the emotional toll on children was profound. Before departing, she launched a community drive with the United States Marines Toys for Tots, where she collected toys to bring with her and give out as a form of comfort to the children who were forced to leave everything behind on their pilgrimage towards safety.
“All the children I distributed the toys to were so overjoyed because they were able to get a glimpse of happiness and felt like ordinary kids for a second,” Vartanov recalls. “My most memorable interaction was with a young girl named Sarah because when I handed her a toy, she gave it back to me. When I asked why she told me, ‘I may have it hard, but some other kid has it harder.’ Those compassionate words struck a chord in my heart because even with all the obstacles she has faced with her family, she still displayed such selflessness.”
Now, upon her return, she is sharing the stories of her experience with local schoolchildren and rallying even greater support behind this cause that she finds so near and dear. While most of her time is spent in the western portions of Long Island, she is bringing the campaign to the East End, while so many spend time here.
“Bringing this message to the East End helps you reach an important group of people who are vacationing for the summer,” she says. “My message to everyone is to take action and to help in any way possible because what may seem like a small action may have a dramatic impact on a person’s life.”
She hopes that her efforts will help raise awareness and keep this important topic on the minds of vacationers and full-time East End residents alike.
Todd Shapiro is an award-winning publicist and associate publisher of Dan’s Papers.