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Ukraine, Vermont Students Join in Holiday Benefit Concert

photo by Ruben Tolmachiov
The Girls’ Choir of the Children’s Palace of Kyiv, Ukraine, who will be performing by video at the Highland Arts Center on December 10, at 7 p.m.

GREENSBORO – On Saturday, December 10, at 7 p.m., the Highland Center for the Arts will host a holiday concert to benefit dozens of displaced Ukrainians living in Vermont. The refugees are staying at Mercy House in Derby. Seventeen of these displaced people are children, and several of them are living with disabilities. Proceeds from the concert will benefit the most immediate need, a wheelchair-accessible van.

The Ukrainian children of Mercy House have been working with Theresa Cianciolo, a graduate of the Berkeley School of Music, to create the Mercy House Singers. The concert will feature solo performances by several members of the Singers.

The Mercy House Singers will share the stage with the Hazen Union Choir and other Northeast Kingdom high school choirs in this holiday performance. The Dzvinochok Boys Choir and Vognyk Girls Choir will join the concert via video stream from the Kyiv Palace of Children and Youth in Kyiv, Ukraine. The concert also includes famed Maine folk singer-songwriter Dave Mallett and his bass player, Mike Burd.

Ruben Tolmachiov, the director of the Boys Choir at the Kyiv Palace of Children and Youth, noted, “Singers and artists too have a role to play in these difficult times, not just soldiers.”

A Ukrainian dinner and art exhibit will round out the December 10 event. Prior to the concert Ukrainian chefs living at Mercy House will present a themed Ukrainian dinner, including blini, borscht, Kapusta salad and dessert. The dinner will take place at 5:30 p.m., at the Highland Center for the Arts. Photographs of Ukraine by Vermonter Elliot Burg will be displayed in the Gallery.

To purchase tickets for the concert and/or the dinner or make a donation visit

Oleysa’s Story: One Family’s Journey Out of Russian-Occupied Ukraine

This is the story of one displaced Ukrainian and her family now staying in Vermont, and their escape from Russian occupied Zaporizhia. It is, in many ways, the story of many of the other 10 million displaced Ukrainians who have been driven from their homes by Putin’s war.

Oleysa’s first name is used to protect her family’s privacy.

Oleysa has two children and a husband with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Until recently she lived in the village of Skelky in the Zaporizhia region of Ukraine.

This is her story in her own words:

“On February 24, 2022, my family’s lives changed forever. There had been rumors that Putin might invade Ukraine, but few believed them. On that day in February three large planes, the largest I had ever seen, flew over our home. My husband was home, and he looked out a window. He said, ‘Those planes are ours. They are flying toward the regional center of Zaporizhia.’

“War had come but I still went to work on the February 25 and 26. Everything had changed and everywhere people were speaking about war. Russian soldiers already occupied the surrounding towns.

From work I was able to speak with my Mom and daughter. They were both very scared. The Russian soldiers were 15 kilometers from our home and were not letting people get through to Skelky. Some people immediately took their cars and drove to see friends and relatives further to the west. The shelves in every store and shop in the area emptied quickly. It was difficult because most shops insisted on being paid with cash. There were long lines at the bank. We had some money, but we could not get it from the bank. Our friends were helping us and others in the community and one pastor came often to our village bringing food.

“Police and ambulance services began to disappear. Fear was palpable. Two villages that were only five kilometers away from ours were destroyed. In our village we could hear explosions from bombs. We moved to the basement where we lived underground for one and a half months.

“At times the children could play outside very briefly, but when the firing and explosions started again they had to come back to the basement. As the Russians advanced, some of the young people from our village took down all the road signs to confuse the Russians. But the Russians began to move into our village with their tanks. When our Territorial Defense lit the surrounding fields on fire to slow the tanks the Russians began shooting at our men and one of them was killed. He had four children and a wife. The tanks evaded our soldiers and fired on one of the electric stations. The lights went off and then we heard the tanks coming into our village. We started texting friends and asking for prayers.

“As time went on, we learned that there was tremendous fighting and fires around, Zaporizhia, the location of Europe’s largest nuclear power station. We were frightened that if the fire engulfed the power plant no one would survive.

“In April we decided to try to escape. My husband was waiting for help from a friend who also hoped to escape, but drivers with cars all wanted to be paid. My husband has a form of Lou Gehrig’s disease and is partially paralyzed. He is unable to walk any lengthy distances which made escape difficult for us. We started putting out messages looking to get a ride out of the village. Everyone feared people they didn’t know. My mom was telling us we needed to leave but she refused to leave.

“We found a group who said they would take thirty people out of the village. On a Monday, we were ready to go with their driver, They wrote ‘Red Cross’ and ‘children’ on the car. Behind us cars and buildings were all destroyed. The roads had big holes from the fighting. The convoy moved slowly. Ahead of us we could see that some families who had tried to leave had been shot.

“We came to a checkpoint where there were three Russian soldiers with guns. Our driver dropped the window and the soldier asked, ‘Who are you? Where are you going? Why are you leaving?’ We didn’t know how to answer, and we were all scared. The soldier told the driver he could be shot, and we were terrified. The soldier came to our window and asked, ‘Are they your children? Do you have documents?’ I handed over documents and he gave them back. Then he looked at our bags. I told him that they were packed with toys, medicine, and clothes. He closed the trunk. They let us go, but not before one of the soldiers swore at us.

“Before long we came to a second check point. There was a very long line. We were told we needed a special registration to pass the checkpoint. In a notebook they were keeping a record of the cars, license plates, passports, and names of anyone leaving. Our vehicle was not registered. I believed God would help us. The driver decided to leave the main road. We took muddy back roads. We started hearing more artillery and tanks, and we drove faster.

“In about ten kilometers we could see another check point in the distance at the top of a hill. Our hearts sank. Then we saw blue and yellow emblems on the soldiers. They were Ukrainian. They asked, ‘Are you ours?’ Overjoyed, we said, ‘yes!’ Relieved, we all embraced, giving many thanks to the Ukrainian soldiers. That was the beginning of our journey to America.”

The Highland Center for the Arts in Greensboro will present a special Holiday Concert featuring Ukrainian refugees and Vermont students on Saturday, Dec. 10. There will be a special Ukrainian dinner prepared by Oleysa and others. Tickets are available at

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