When a Belfast middle school language arts teacher and an English teacher from Bucha, Ukraine, virtually met in the winter of 2021, their purpose was to connect their classrooms.
But as invasion, war, terror and displacement changed the Ukrainian woman’s life in late February, her Belfast counterpart became a lifeline that helped her escape from her country.
“I had one angel defender, [Martha Conway-Cole],” Anna Maymeskul, 41, said last week via video chat from Plymouth, England, where she has found safety as a refugee from her native Ukraine. “Now I always make the joke that it seems to me that the God is in the heaven. He’s sitting looking at me and he’s saying, ‘OK, Anna, you’ve got problems. Now, I will find people who will help you.’ There were so many people who helped me, but during all this way, there was one person who took care of me since the first days of the war. It was Martha.”
The teachers’ paths first crossed during the pandemic, after Troy Howard Middle School social studies teacher Guy Hamlin began corresponding with a teacher at a school in Bucha. Another teacher at that school, Maymeskul, also wanted to have an American school connection. Hamlin asked Conway-Cole if she would be willing. She was. Their seventh grade students began sending videos back and forth between Belfast and Bucha, a leafy suburb of Kyiv that later would become infamous for war atrocities committed against civilians by Russian soldiers.
“We would show Troy Howard Middle School kids harvesting the garden and walking through the fields in a snowstorm,” Conway-Cole said. “[The Bucha] kids were learning English and seemed very suburban and sophisticated to me.”
The two teachers found they had a lot of things in common. They each had two sons and an interest in the world beyond their homes. They sent small presents to each other after school was out for the summer. “One Morning in Maine,” the beloved picture book by Robert McCloskey, went to Bucha. Ukrainian tablecloths came to Belfast. They started calling each other on Sundays.
“We got to be pretty good friends,” Conway-Cole said. “She’s a really warm, friendly person.”
This winter, when it became clear that Russia was going to invade Ukraine, Conway-Cole was worried about Maymeskul. The Ukraine teacher was no stranger to conflict and displacement —- she was moved to Bucha as a refugee after Russian forces attacked an area in eastern Ukraine, where she lived, in 2014.
When the invasion began on Feb. 24, it was hard to get information about Bucha, Conway-Cole said. She lost contact with Maymeskul for 10 days and learned from international reports that Bucha was being bombarded by Russian forces.
“I was afraid that I had made a friend just to lose her,” Conway-Cole said.
Things had taken a dark turn in Bucha. During some of those 10 days, Maymeskul and her family lost their electricity and camped out in a basement to avoid the intense bombing. Later, she learned that one of her seventh grade students had been fatally shot by Russian soldiers.
“There was no way to contact the world,” Maymeskul said. “And Martha lost me. She didn’t know where I am or what happened to me.”
Eventually her family managed to get out, in a car crammed with eight people, animals and suitcases, and make it to the relative safety of Kyiv. Maymeskul called Conway-Cole right away.
“She was one of the first people I contacted after coming to the safe place, because I knew that she worried about me,” Maymeskul said.
The contact was a blessing for the Maine teacher.
“It was such a relief, because I could just imagine all the worst things that could happen,” Conway-Cole said.
Once in Kyiv, Maymeskul and her best friend debated whether they should try to leave with their children and animals in tow. Their husbands had to stay behind to help guard the country.
“I remember wanting to grab the phone and say, ‘Get out!’” Patrick Hurley, Martha Conway-Cole’s husband, said.
The Mainers did what they could to lend support from afar.
“It seemed to me that they didn’t have a lot of information of what was going on, because communications weren’t great,” Conway-Cole said.
She shared news stories and information she learned from another friend who was working for a humanitarian organization that helps refugees. Maymeskul and her friend wondered what to do about their pets, and Conway-Cole told her that organizations were providing support and help for refugees with dogs, cats and other animals.
Ultimately, the Ukrainians decided to leave.
“She sent me this really touching picture of her on a bus going to Poland with her cat on her lap and her dog lying there, looking like the weight of the world is on his shoulders,” Conway-Cole said.
They kept in daily contact, with Conway-Cole serving as an information conduit about groups that supported refugees.
“She told me she didn’t want to stay in Poland, because there were so many people flooding into Poland,” Conway-Cole said.
The Ukrainian women applied for a new U.K. refugee sponsorship program, and were accepted.
“All of us were happy,” Maymeskul said.
But the process was very slow, and they didn’t have a place to stay in Poland.
“All the refugee camps were overcrowded. There were lots of people. And we had two animals, a cat and a dog, and it was even more difficult to find a place for us,” Maymeskul said.
They decided to try to get to Germany, which was a little bit closer to England, and stay there until they could travel on.
“I didn’t ask anything from Martha. I’m just telling her about my events,” Maymeskul said. “And she said, ‘OK, I have understood. We have to find someone in Germany.’”
Conway-Cole knew people in Germany because she hosted three Belfast Area High School exchange students from there over the years. She got in touch with all of them, and two said they would help the women find apartments and with translation. The third offered for the women and their families to stay with her mother.
“So [Anna and her friend] and the three boys and the dog and the cat ended up in Germany,” Conway-Cole said.
They remained in Germany for weeks, until finally getting permission to travel on to France. By this time, they had sent the cat back to Ukraine so it would be reunited with Maymeskul’s husband. That’s because they needed to get a special license to bring the animals to England, and figured it would be easier with just the dog.
Finally, after another delay in France, the Ukrainians made it to England. They are staying with a family in Plymouth, and figuring out their new lives. For the moment, Maymeskul is still teaching her class from Bucha remotely, and the kids are beginning to learn English.
It’s not always easy being a stranger in a strange land, even with help. Especially when their home country continues to be under attack.
In June, Conway-Cole and Hurley went to England to visit family there — and to meet Maymeskul in person after all this time.
“I felt like I’d known her all my life,” Conway-Cole said.
They had a picnic, and a champagne toast, and laughed and talked together, and even the weight of what they had lived through could not dampen the joy of the day.
“I was glad I had my sunglasses on because I was getting all teary-eyed,” Hurley said.
For Maymeskul, the way that so many people — including Conway-Cole — came forward to help her and her family and friends on the journey to safety has meant the world to her.
“I see how people are concerned about events in my country. How people are ready and open to help,” she said. “It gives the hope not only to me, but to all people of my country, that if the world is with us, it means that we will win this war and everything will be OK for all people.”