War in Ukraine becomes a real-life lesson for students

A woman and her son look out from an evacuation train at Kyiv central train station in Ukraine Feb. 25, 2022, after Russia launched a massive military operation against Ukraine. (CNS photo/Umit Bektas, Reuters)

We decided to leave. We don’t really know the exact way. A lot of stuff is going to be decided tomorrow. So I can’t give you an update on the news yet. I’ll have to pack and probably spend some time thinking about what’s valuable to take and what’s not. Sorry you have to wait for updates. I’m recording this message to say it’s fine. We’re OK. It’s quite quiet this night. And I hope it stays so. I’ll try to get some sleep, because I’m an early bird tomorrow. Thanks, talk to you later.

This is the minute-long message Irina left for Kathleen Curran on WhatsApp in the late hours of March 3.

Curran is a social studies teacher at University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy. She wanted to set up a Zoom call between her class and Irina, a 31-year-old Kyiv resident and a former foreign exchange student who lived with a U of D Jesuit family while attending Grosse Pointe South High School for her senior year.

Curran was hoping Irina could tell her class about the real-world experiences of the now weeklong Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Curran and Irina kept communicating, with Curran offering her prayers for Irina, and Irina confirming she, her fiancé and her cat are all right, as Russian forces continue to shell her homeland with missiles, gunfire and tanks, closing in on the capital.

In the next five minutes, they set out packing. Five minutes to decide what to grab — and what to leave behind — as they relocate to the west of the country, further away from the front lines, but insisting they stay in their homeland.

Curran has been having daily conversations with Irina via WhatsApp, with Irina recording and sending video of what it's like in Kyiv: the process of securing food, getting to air raid shelters when sirens go off, and maintaining calm — somehow — amidst a war.

The Zoom call wouldn't happen, but the news spurred Curran to give her class a new assignment, a writing prompt: “If you had five minutes to pack up to leave your home, potentially your country, maybe even forever, where would you start?”

It can be easy to think of wars and mass migrations as things of the past. Studying the results of battles and campaigns long decided, the fate of refugees fleeing bombed-out cities — these are common lessons in social studies classes about World War II and past conflicts.

But this isn’t a history lesson. These are current events.

Irina and her family aren’t in the history books. They're real people. That was a real voice message Irina left yesterday for Curran, apologizing — amazingly — for not being able to set up a Zoom call with her class.

If you had five minutes to pack your belongings and potentially leave forever, what would you do?

The images and reports from Ukraine are haunting. And as the situation changes, some reports need to be taken with a grain of salt. Deception and misinformation are part of 21st century warfare.

It can be hard to verify new information as things rapidly change on the ground. But Irina’s message to Curran leaves one minute of absolute clarity: She and her family are leaving Kyiv, their home, for who knows how long, and they are deciding what they’ll bring and what they’ll leave behind.

Five minutes to decide what to pack from a lifetime.

Amidst the chaos and at times conflicting reports, it’s hard to know what to think of the ongoing war. It’s almost unimaginable to think about what one would pack if they only had five minutes.

But I'd like to think that if I was there — if I had five minutes to pack, perhaps never to see my home again — there would be one thing I’d be certain to do with those few precious moments:


Daniel Meloy is a staff reporter for Detroit Catholic.


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