Six years ago, Iryna (Ira) Komarova was an exchange student from Ukraine at Rock Island High School. Last week (now in her early 20s), she feared for her life after leaving her father and brother in her home country, under attack by Russia.

“She thought her whole family was going to leave, escape, and then they came out and said the men couldn’t leave,” Deb Bowen of Aledo said Wednesday, noting all Ukraine men from 18 to 60 have been recruited to defend their country against Russia. Ira’s mom has high blood pressure.

“Her mother’s worried about her father; they’re all worried about leaving dad behind,” she said. “These things just broke my heart.” Bowen has hosted many exchange students from Eastern Europe over the years and served as local coordinator for many more in the QC.

Deb Bowen of Aledo has worked as local coordinator for many foreign exchange students in the QC, and has personally hosted 13 herself.

On Thursday, Feb. 24, Ira drove her family to Moldova (about five and a half hours away), leaving her father behind to fight the Russians. She texted to Bowen: “Will try to keep you updated, but my whole focus today would be to get my family somewhere safe. Overnight, I became a provider for my family, and their rock. Please, pray for my strength, concentration of the road, separation from dad.”

On Friday, Ira texted: “The drive here was so much easier than I could’ve imagined! Up until this point, we never got caught in traffic, didn’t see a single road incident, our car is good. All gas stations have lines of 15-20 cars, but we managed to get into one without a line!! And right after we left that gas station was flooded with cars. I know it seems like very small things, but in the current condition it’s a real miracle.”

Ira Komarova as a high school exchange student in Rock Island.

On Saturday, they got to Chisinau. “The drive was awful, I was seeing double, whole body shaking,” Ira said. “But we made it through. Now the energy is restored. I’m at an apartment that my company set up for me. The welcoming is so great, they thought of every detail.

“But it’s not home, I feel like I’m living someone else’s life. I just want to wake up and realize it was just a dream,” Ira said. “Tonight I’m crashing down, tomorrow creating a plan with my management to help the ones in Ukraine.”

The CEO from her technology company in Israel flew into Chisinau to help Ira with aid to the Ukrainian people.

“I can’t imagine driving through war zones,” Bowen said. “It was very scary.”

More than 800,000 civilians have fled Ukraine, according to the UN.

The European Union estimates that up to four million people may try to leave the country because of the Russian invasion. The bloc has relaxed its rules on refugees and says its member states will welcome the refugees with open arms.

Ukraine’s population is 43 million, and the size of the country is the second-largest in Europe, after Russia.

“It was rough – when she got there, she was pretty wiped out,” Bowen said of Ira, noting she has called her dad since leaving.

Connecting with other Ukrainians

In the past week, Bowen has connected with several other Ukrainian students who have been exchange students in the Quad Cities. She gave these updates —

  • Anastasia Polievyk, Mercer County HS (2012-2013): Anastasia is safe so far but has been hiding in the basement in Kiev with her mother for many days. Hearing people shooting and bombs dropping are common.
  • Anastasiya Robeyko, Sherrard HS (2016-2017): Anastasiya is in Poland and has been receiving family members fleeing from Ukraine. She’s helping with many displaced people in addition to her own family.
  • Alina Kobal, Davenport Central HS (2016-2017): Alina is sheltering in place in her home. She said her mother calls her several times an hour to make sure she is still okay. She’s afraid for her life.
  • Anna Parshyna, Pleasant Valley HS (2017-2018): Anna is also in Poland and has been helping countless refugees, teaming up at times with Anastasiya and a missionary friend of mine who is living in Poland as well.
  • Amanda Drobot, Pleasant Valley HS (2017-2018): Amanda is safe in Prague but very concerned about friends and family back home.
  • Lev Barenboim, Mercer County HS / Quad Cities Christian School (2017-2018): There were two Russian students in my cluster the year he was here. This was the last time I placed students from Russia, but I’ve had other students from Ukraine — the most recent being Illia, who went to AlWood High in 2019-2020.

“Lev just moved to the capital city in Ukraine a few weeks ago to start a new job. He got an apartment and was very excited to start his new life when the war broke out,” Bowen said. “He texted me yesterday with all the food he had in the house. I was happy to hear he had dry goods like rice and beans.

Lev Barenboim playing with the Mercer County High School marching band.

“Lev’s grandmother is a Jewish Holocaust survivor from World War II. She now lives in Israel, but I couldn’t help but think that there was a point in her young life where she was wondering how she would survive and how she would eat, just like her grandson now,” she said.

“He’s sheltering in place, but he interesting thing about him is, his grandmother was a Holocaust survivor in World War II,” Bowen said of Lev. “I’m processing with him things like food – where he’s gonna go if his place would get bombed, God forbid.

“I’m thinking, his grandmother all those years ago was worried about food; she was worried about staying alive,” she said. “What have we learned? It’s just so tragic.”

Between 1941 and 1944, the Nazis murdered more than a million Jews in Ukraine, then a republic of the former Soviet Union.

Bowen has also helped place two Russian students, Kristina (Fairfield HS) and Maxim (Mercer County HS).

“Kristina is nonresponsive, so I’ve not been able to reach them to see how they are doing but we know the Russian people are suffering too,” Bowen said. “Like Lev, they are grandchildren of Jewish Holocaust survivors.”

The last Ukrainian student, Illia, had to leave early in March 2020 (like all other exchange students) because of COVID, and the whole town of Alpha had a parade and lined the streets to say goodbye.

Illia, an exchange student from Ukraine, gives a thumbs-up after a March 2020 farewell parade in his honor in Alpha, Ill.

“He felt so loved, in the tiny town of Alpha, Illinois,” Bowen said. “He was glowing when I got there. All the signs they left behind, how they were gonna miss him. It was beautiful.”

At the time of COVID shutdowns in 2020, the students were afraid, Bowen said.

“We couldn’t hug each other; I remember with students standing on their porch and me in the yard, just crying because I couldn’t come and hug them,” she recalled. “It was awful.”

Working with exchange students for 25 years

Bowen has worked to bring foreign students to the QC through FLEX, a program of the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. government, administered by American Councils for International Education.

1993-1994 was the first year of the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) program. FLEX (a competitive, merit-based program) was created from the belief of former Sen. Bill Bradley that the best way to ensure long-lasting peace and mutual understanding between the U.S. and the countries of Eurasia is to enable young people to learn about the U.S. and Americans firsthand, and to teach Americans about their countries

Each year, Bowen would take students to a mosque, a synagogue and a church to hear from religious leaders on the same day.

Her interest started from a trip to Hy-Vee and she saw a flyer seeking host families for students from Kyrgyzstan in the ‘90s, and her family took two that summer. “I loved it, because we lived in a small community – Aledo – and people learned so much from them,” Bowen said.

Ira Komarova (standing second from left) with a group of foreign exchange students at a Happy Joe’s with Happy Joe Whitty, during the 2015-16 school year.

“It was a short exchange, but I saw the power in that,” she said, noting she raised six kids of her own. “I wanted that for my family and all the kids in the community. A year or two later, I became a local coordinator, where I bring the kids here after I find a host family and a cooperating school.”

Hundreds of kids have come since then, and Bowen said it’s been wonderful.

“It’s still a big commitment for a family to do this. I’ve found over the years, it’s the busier families that say yes to it,” she said. “They add one more in the mix. We’ve hosted 13 kids over the years, and our kids loved it because we did more when the foreign kids were living with us. We went to Chicago and a lot of fun things.”

It’s been a while since the Bowens have hosted an exchange student.

“When our boys were real little when we started hosting, and I was trying to make educational programming all the time,” she said. “When they got older, they just wanted to play video games with these kids when they came, right?”

Bowen likes to stay connected over the years with former students.

“I’ve specialized in students from the former Soviet bloc,” she said. “Also African countries and Middle East.”

“I just love getting to know them, seeing what their struggles are,” Bowen said. “I love to get what I used to think were former enemies, together. I just love to get them together and talk about the past and talk about what their families went through. Now we have a whole new situation with what’s happening in Ukraine.”

Bowen coordinated the exchange of four high-school students from Ukraine in 2017-2018, who helped make these all-American cookies.

She’s traveled to Washington, D.C. to talk with students.

“I love that in the end, they see the value of making piece with one another, so that’s very special to me when that happens,” Bowen said. “It’s been a great program. I see my kids, what they’re doing now to help other Ukrainians get out. They’re using such great organizational skills. Part of why they come here is to become leaders, and they’re being leaders right now.”

“I love what I’m seeing; it makes me very proud,” she said.

She’s also heard from QC host families that put up exchange students. “Everybody’s pretty worried,” Bowen said. “It’s a terrifying scene, what we’re looking at on television. It’s terrifying to think this is really happening.”

Expanding on “A Book by Me”

Bowen also runs the “A Book by Me” series — a project for youth, which includes interviewing a subject to write and illustrate a 10-page children’s book on their life. Never Forget Publishing, Inc then publishes the story complete with photos, a two-page biography, and matching curriculum.

In the beginning, the book project started as a dream of Deb Bowen’s to preserve stories of Jewish Holocaust survivors. There are over 80 books in the Holocaust series, stories of Jewish survivors, WWII Veteran liberators and eye witnesses, and Righteous Gentiles, non-Jews who risked their lives to help Jews. There are also two other series: Human Rights and Heroes.

Lev Barenboim and Bowen want to do a “Book by Me” book about his grandmother, who’s still alive in Israel.

“I think that book needs to include what’s happening to him, now that we’ve had it on the shelf for a while,” she said Wednesday. “We’ll find a student to combine the two stories, because it is so powerful.”

Ira Komarova, seen here as a 16-year-old exchange student, had to flee Ukraine with her family last week during the Russian invasion.

“It’s very sad and tragic; I’ve shed tears over it, but it’s also so impressive to see their leadership skills,” Bowen said of people like Ira. “So young, in their 20s. I don’t know if I had one leadership skill in my 20s.”

In the QC, kids from Ukraine and Russia all got along great together, she noted.

“When you know your mother or grandmother went through things that caused them great pain, sometimes that creates even more pain than something that happened to you personally,” Bowen said.

“I saw that with a boy from Azerbaijan in D.C. one time,” she said. “What the State Department does has value, bringing these kids to America.”

“The people of Ukraine want our prayers; I hear that all the time,” Bowen said. “They really do need a miracle to survive. But I’ve worked with a lot of Jewish Holocaust survivors and I know those miracles happen. I know they do.”