East siblings share their story about living in Ukraine

Cherry Hill East students Matthew and Gabby share their story about living in Ukraine before the war started.

Courtesy of time.com

Cherry Hill East students Matthew and Gabby share their story about living in Ukraine before the war started.

Ukraine, the second-largest country in Europe after Russia, has been thrust onto the world’s stage by Russian president Vladimir Putin in recent months. Ukraine gained its independence from Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, bringing conflict between the two countries ever since. Russian troops started gathering at the border in March of 2022, and President Biden began to bring home the U.S. diplomats and their families.

Matthew and Gabby Cyganik (‘25) moved to Ukraine in July of 2020 when their mother got a job at the U.S. Embassy in Kyeve. Kyeve was home to nearly 3 million people before the invasion, and the twins say the move was crazy especially due to COVID. There were a lot of adjustments to be made moving to a new country. One major difficulty was adapting to the language.
When Gabby and Matthew moved to Ukraine, they did not speak and were not familiar with the language at all, but were able to communicate for 2 years despite the language barrier. An upside to moving at the beginning of the summer was that they had a couple of months to adjust before going back to school. The twins participated in sports and attended a private school.
Life in Ukraine described by Mathew and Gabby was very different in comparison to Cherry Hill. They said their home in Ukraine was in more of an urban setting, and most of the people lived in apartments or small houses. Their neighborhood was gated, but the houses were very close to each other. One of the best things about living there, Gabby and Matthew said is how amazing it was to walk and bike everywhere they went. Not nearly as many people used cars and most commonly used public transportation such as trains and buses. A memorable difference between them is that Cherry Hill does not have enough sidewalks.

“Cherry Hill is absolutely horrific for walking,” said Gabby, because there are not enough crosswalks and it’s not as easy to get to parks and places like that, compared to Ukraine where it was filled with backtrails and biking paths.

A more notable aspect that had a great impact on the twins was the amount of freedom they felt they had in Ukraine. They loved being able to bike wherever they wanted and being in the many open spaces. The laws also seem to be a bit looser and Gabby even drove a high-speed Go-Kart through the streets when she was just 13.
As described by Mathew and Gabby, the Ukrainian people are very kind and welcoming. The twins described Ukraninans as “unique” and “just very nice people.”

Saying “Glory to Ukraine” was a very popular solute throughout the country. It is a symbol of Ukrainian sovereignty and resistance, and Mathew and Gabby were taught this everywhere they went. The twins feel the country is united because of their common adversity in Russia.

An interesting thing noted about the Ukrainian people is that they are really superstitious about the cold. Gabby says if she went to soccer practice in the winter and was wearing shorts, they would go as far as to kick you out of practice. Gabby says she used to get into fights with her coaches about not wanting to wear leggings when she felt warm, and meanwhile, they would argue in completely different languages not understanding each other. Ukrainians are so superstitious about the cold that Gabby one time even went to the movies with a friend while wearing shorts in the winter, and a woman said something to her in Ukrainian while gesturing to her legs. She says this happened to her very often. You can’t even buy iced coffee or any cold drinks in the winter!
What is happening in Ukraine now is very complicated. Gabby and Matthew describe how the feud between Ukraine and Russia has been a very prominent issue for years. According to the twins, the people in Ukraine didn’t think Putin would actually push through the borders between the countries and start a war, but instead Putin was trying to scare the country into submission.

The Cyganik family was thinking they would probably need to flee back to the United States for only about a month, but now that they know the war has gotten so bad, they are permanently back here in Cherry Hill. Gabby and Mathew used to attend a basketball gym multiple times a week; Mathew played on a basketball team that practiced in the building. This basketball gym that was a huge part of their life in Ukraine was recently bombed by Russia, and unfortunately caused the death of 5 people. Another unfortunate place in Ukraine that was bombed by Russia was an area that Gabby described as looking like a city in America. There is a park near where they lived, and at the back of the park, there was a nice apartment complex. It was full of shops and just a really nice area to walk around and unfortunately, there is nothing left of it. Even a brand new mall called Retroville was recently bombed. Millions of people have fled the country, and the Cyganik twins have many friends all over the world. They have a friend who is in Poland right now, they have friends in Hungary, otherwise, most of the country is fleeing as far west of Ukraine as possible.

There are some things families over the world are able to do to help the people of Ukraine. The Cyganiks recommend donating in support and being careful you are donating to credible sources. Their high school in Keyve posted things to donate money to hospitals and clean damages. A final thing Gabby and Mathew want to be addressed is for teens and young kids to be more aware of jokes targeted at the Russia-Ukraine war. They wish that people would “stop following TikTok trends, the videos and comments are just so insensitive.” The Cyganiks believe that Ukraine is doing a great job defending their country, and are so thankful for the Ukrainian military and supporters.