Fulbright scholar from Woodstock helps Ukrainian refugees fleeing to Poland

  • Evan Lenzen, a native of Woodstock, went to Ukraine in October 2021 on a Fulbright scholarship and was evacuated to Warsaw before the war began. Lenzen is now assisting Ukrainian refugees who fled to Poland.

    Evan Lenzen, a native of Woodstock, went to Ukraine in October 2021 on a Fulbright scholarship and was evacuated to Warsaw before the war began. Lenzen is now assisting Ukrainian refugees who fled to Poland. Courtesy of Evan Lenzen

Updated 3/19/2022 9:22 AM

Woodstock native Evan Lenzen was teaching English in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, as part of a Fulbright scholarship until just weeks before Russia invaded its neighboring country.

On Jan. 27, the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine informed everyone in the program there that they were being pulled out of the country.


Now in Poland, Lenzen is trying to help Ukrainian refugees in Warsaw as the war continues and Mykolaiv is one of the cities under siege by Russian forces.

"We arrived in Warsaw on the notion we'd return within one or two months," Lenzen, 26, said during an internet phone call with the Northwest Herald. "I was optimistic. Russian troops have a history of lining up around the border or building fences, so people in my community didn't really think much about the situation until foreigners started leaving."

Lenzen's circuitous route to Ukraine began in 2015 when he was studying Russian at the University of Kentucky. Although his Ukrainian language skills are "nonexistent," Lenzen said he found Russian is commonly used in everyday conversation or mixed in as part of the local dialect.

Three years ago, Lenzen said, he visited a friend studying in Ukraine on a Fulbright scholarship, and he fell in love with the country. Since then, Lenzen said, his goal was to do a project helping Ukrainian veterans who fought in the 2014 war, helping them find jobs in their communities. Lenzen said he is a veteran and spent six years in the U.S. Army Reserves.

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During his time in Ukraine, Lenzen was teaching English at Petro Mohyla Black Sea National University. Lenzen said he would often do work in his small apartment. Because of COVID-19, he was teaching online when he first arrived in October.

Lenzen described Mykolaiv as "a really interesting city," a vital seaport based around shipbuilding and having a strong sense of hospitality to visitors.

"The people are so friendly," Lenzen said. "They will give you a shirt off their back and not ask for a single thing in return."

He was within a week of launching his project to help veterans when the war broke out.

"It didn't matter anymore," Lenzen said. "Nothing mattered anymore. The focus was now on making sure everybody was OK and doing what we can to mobilize, get medicine, raise awareness."


Lenzen, like many others, is impressed with Ukrainians' resilience, including those he befriended in Mykolaiv.

"They are not afraid," Lenzen said. "My students tell me, 'Oh, we are going to war, don't worry about it.'"

Communication between Ukrainians in and out of the country has largely happened through apps such as Telegram; the latter is where Lenzen says he gets most of his information about the war, including pictures and videos.

Lenzen said he has been checking up on his students daily, asking for updates on their situation in Mykolaiv, finding out who has evacuated and who has stayed.

Many have taken up arms as part of the Territorial Defense Forces in Ukraine to supplement the military or go on patrol with the police. Lenzen said he also knows some students who have been giving blood or volunteering to drive people or supplies around to where they're needed.

Lenzen said he is noticing the silent scars of people whose country is under attack. Some of the refugees left their families behind, as men ages 18 to 60 are not allowed to leave Ukraine. Of his students and friends in Ukraine, Lenzen said many have no choice but to stay in their apartments or dormitories, despite frequent shelling from Russian forces.

Mykolaiv does have bunkers throughout the city, and Lenzen said he doesn't know anyone who has been injured yet. But a student has been to two funerals for family members.

Among the refugees, Lenzen said they are most fearful when things go silent, or a plane passes by overhead.

"You see a lot of really heavy emotions," Lenzen said. "They had to leave everything behind a lot of times. Families split up. I can't even begin to imagine what that's like."

As for his own family and friends back home, Lenzen said he "has done a really bad job" of staying in touch with people, although he regularly communicates with his parents and older sister, Robyn, as well as his best friend back in Woodstock.

"The fact that he cares so much has made me care more," Robyn said of her brother being abroad. "It's easy for the average person to feel like you're far removed from the conflict, and when you know someone who called this country, or a town or community, home and family, all of the sudden it feels extremely real and concerning."

In some ways, the war makes Lenzen's Fulbright project of assisting veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder even more urgent, at least when the war is over. But Lenzen may have to return to the U.S. in April, at least temporarily, because he doesn't have a visa. Lenzen said his goal is to return as soon as possible.

"It's like a second home to me now," Lenzen said of Ukraine. "It's a beautiful, incredible place."

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