The Daily Catch

With Family Under Siege Abroad, Ukrainian-American Bard Student Looks To Music and Community for Solace

Ukrainian-American Teryn Kuzma, 24, is training at Bard while war rages in her family’s homeland (photo by Victor Feldman).

Teryn Kuzma was at an evening opera rehearsal at Bard College when she heard that Russian forces had begun invading Ukraine. The news came via a text message sent to Kuzma on Wednesday night from a friend living in Ukraine’s besieged capital, Kyiv. 

“I was shocked. My friends could see how upset I was, but luckily the rehearsal was almost finished and I managed to get a grip on myself,” Kuzma said in an interview with The Red Hook Daily Catch this morning. 

Kuzma, 24, is a third-generation Ukrainian-American graduate student in her first year in the Graduate Vocal Arts Program at Bard. While Kuzma and her parents were born in the United States, many of her family and friends, including a childhood nanny, still live in Ukraine. Now, Kuzma says she’s “terrified” for their safety.

Kuzma says that, since last Thursday, when the Russian invasion into Ukraine began, she has been frantically checking her phone seeking news updates. All this between musical rehearsals and practicing the bandura, Ukraine’s national musical instrument. Using apps like Facebook Messenger and Instagram, she is managing to stay in contact with loved ones in the former Soviet state.

“I’m messaging everyone I know,” Kuzma said, adding that social media has become the only tool to connect her with family in a moment of crisis. 

“My friends are telling me the pharmacies are running out of medicine, there is no food in the stores, and some of them are getting in those lines you see to get guns and fight,” she said. Last week, her former nanny texted her from a bomb shelter under Kyiv to say she was safe. Kuzma says she’s receiving some information on the ground before it’s being reported in the Western media and that she is in contact with her friend’s mother, a former high-ranking official in the Ukrainian government. 

So far, those friends and family are staying put in Ukraine.

Kuzma says most of her cousins living in Lviv, a large city in Western Ukraine, are hunkering down, taking shelter in their homes, in subway stations, and in underground bomb shelters. Others, including friends Kuzma made while visiting Ukraine during her childhood, are taking up arms and enlisting to serve in the military. On Friday, Kuzma received a text from the wife of a cousin who serves in the military, saying that he had been deployed to fight. The location of that deployment is unknown. 

Kuzma, holding her bandura, hopes to raise money to send to Ukraine by playing the instrument around Bard’s campus this week (photo courtesy Teryn Kuzma).

“It’s scary stuff,” Kuzma said, fighting back tears. But, she said she’s been moved by the bravery of the Ukrainian people and their president, Volodymyr Zelensky. “Before this, I was not really sure about him; he was this comedian with a popular show before he became president, but now, he’s stepped up.”  

On Friday evening, Zelensky released a video with other top government officials in Kyiv vowing to remain in Ukraine and to defend the country against a Russian onslaught. Kuzma said she was proud and impressed. “How many other leaders would go into the trenches to fight?”

An outpouring of support from Bard students and faculty have also touched Kuzma. 

On Saturday night, dozens of students packed into Bard’s Chapel of the Holy Innocents on Annandale Road to take part in a demonstration against the Russian invasion. For over an hour, faculty and students from Georgia, Ukraine, and Russia gave speeches decrying Russian President Vladimir Putin, signaling their solidarity with the Ukrainian people.

“I was touched by how many people cared,” Kuzma said, adding that her professors have been extremely supportive of her during this time. Afterward, the crowd, carrying ribbons and candles, walked to Blithewood for a moment of silence and prayer for peace. 

On Feb. 25, one day after the start of the Russian invasion, Bard president Leon Botstein and Arizona State University President Michael Crow jointly penned a letter for Inside Higher Ed calling upon the Biden Administration to establish a new university sponsorship program for refugee students. (At press time, more than 600,000 refugees had fled Ukraine in the past five days, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency). 

Kuzma believes that, to stop Russia, more action is needed from the United States and NATO, the European defense alliance. “The Ukrainians are some of the most resilient people in the world, but resilience will only get you so far,” she said, adding that other nations should consider taking stronger military action to rebuke Russia in addition to levying economic sanctions. 

Ukrainian Childhood in Connecticut 

Born in New Haven, Conn. to Ukrainian-American parents, Kuzma grew up with her feet planted in two cultures: America and Ukraine. Her parents, both the children of Ukrainian refugees who emigrated to the U.S. during World War II, made sure Kuzma, her elder sister Alina, and her younger sister Maya grew up embracing the music, history, and art of their ancestral homeland. 

Shortly after Kuzma was born, the family moved to Glastonbury, Conn., where there was a large Ukrainian-American community. As a child, Kuzma attended Glastonbury public schools and a special Ukrainian school each Saturday to learn Ukrainian history, geography, reading, and writing. Kuzma also took Ukrainian dance lessons, learned bandura, and attended local Ukrainian Catholic church services most Sundays. 

I’ve had two groups of friends growing up, my Ukrainian friends and my American friends,” she said, adding, “But my American friends were a little weirded out I went to school on Saturdays.” 

Kuzma’s maternal grandmother holds her as her grandfather plays the bandura (photo courtesy Teryn Kuzma).

When she was eight, Kuzma moved with her family to Kyiv for a year so her father could work for an organization helping children suffering from the aftereffects of nuclear radiation around Chernobyl, the site in 1986 of the worst nuclear accident in history. Kuzma has since returned to Kyiv on a handful of visits to see family and friends. Of her time spent in Ukraine as a youngster, Kuzma says, “That was a huge part of my upbringing, of who I am.”

Today, Kuzma’s father, who majored in Russian literature at Yale and also conducted the university’s Russian chorus, works as the chief executive of development for the Ukrainian Catholic Education Foundation, based in Chicago. Her mother teaches elementary school and plays the bandura. 

Kuzma came to Bard after earning her bachelor’s degree in music from the University of Connecticut. She initially considered studying at a conservatory in Switzerland but chose Bard for the caliber of the faculty in the college’s Vocal Arts Program and calls the training she’s received to date “unparalleled.”

Hope, Fear, and Music

Now, amid the war in Ukraine, each day brings a new set of emotions and challenges. “When I hear another city in Ukraine is being bombed, I can’t sleep that night,” Kuzma said. Music and bandura practice offer some refuge from the news. “People tell me I need to be taking care of myself, to rest, but how can I?”

This week, Kuzma is rehearsing her singing role as Vixen Bystrouška, the title character in an upcoming performance of the opera “The Cunning Little Vixen,” written by the Czech composer Leoš Janáček. It will be performed at Bard’s Fisher Center Friday and Sunday. “Thinking about music has been really therapeutic for me,” she said. 

Armed with her bandura, Kuzma also hopes to take her instrument on a solo tour around Bard’s campus this week as a busker, playing music to raise money for non-profits like Help us Help, Sunflower of Peace, and Save the Children of Ukraine. They all are providing humanitarian aid to Ukraine. 

Said Kuzma, “I want to do whatever I can to help.”

Students and faculty gathered at Bard Saturday night in solidarity with the Ukrainian people and decry Russian President Vladimir Putin (photo courtesy of Teryn Kuzma).


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