The first time Alex Shterenberg called his father in Ukraine after the bombs started falling, the St. Louis University student could hear the sound of air raid sirens blaring through the walls of the his father’s apartment in kyiv.
Henry Shterenberg, Alex’s father, was in his apartment near the city center. He was supposed to be in Poland for a business meeting but was forced to turn back when he came across a military roadblock.
That’s how Henry learned the war had started—watching tanks go by on the road to Belarus. It was the first information he was able to share with his son, who plays football at St. Louis University, when they spoke that day.
They now talk morning and evening, and Alex helps his father in an initiative to inspire Ukrainian students to tell their stories and rally them to what they hope will ultimately be the rebuilding of the country.
“I’m staying in touch as much as I can to make sure he’s alive,” Alex said. “When I don’t hear from him for a few hours, it’s hard not to imagine the worst.
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“For the first time in my life, I feel like I belong in Ukraine. I have the greatest passion of my life that I will carry with me forever. The first thing I want to do after the end is to go back and immerse myself in that culture.
Alex was born in the United States after his parents and grandparents emigrated from Ukraine after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He transferred to SLU from Michigan State last year to complete his football eligibility.
Henry, 50, is a businessman who has focused on attracting investors to Ukraine, a job pending. He is now focused on raising awareness, as the city where he was raised and where he played national youth football under the old Soviet system is bombarded intermittently within sight of his fifth-floor balcony.
“It’s hard to be safe because the TV tower exploded about a 15 minute walk from me,” he said. “You hear huge sounds and sirens. I drove for the first time (Thursday) to get some food, and the town is completely unrecognizable. I never imagined it would take a week to do so much damage.
While Alex will be playing a spring football game on Saturday for SLU, his dad just hopes he’s safe enough to take a walk in a park next to his apartment building.
Henry lives next to the US Embassy west of the city center, a place he thinks might be safer than some, as he doubts Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely to bomb him and stir up even more Of voltage.
Alex was raised with his sister, Dasha, in Boston to Russian-speaking parents and is fluent in the language. He only visited Kyiv once but was surrounded by the region’s culture all his life and never saw Russia as an adversary.
He had heard stories of day trips relatives had taken by train to Moscow. He sees Ukraine and Russia as sister nations. He enjoyed many massive family dinners featuring dishes from the region, and he speaks Russian on his “compulsory” weekly or bi-weekly calls with his grandparents. His bond with the country is strong.
“When the war started, I was completely devastated because I sat on the couch watching the news for two days,” he said. “Now it destroys me. I can’t sit like this and watch anymore without knowing how long it’s going to last.
So he is spending time working with his father on a new organization Henry has named United Students of Ukraine, which he hopes will grow into a movement. Henry formed the organization before the war began with the goal of having students across the country develop websites for the communities there.
Alex helps edit and post student videos to social media sites including Instagram. The hope now is to mobilize young people who will help rebuild the country.
“We were just starting to build the business model to see how it can work,” Henry said Friday morning from Kyiv. “We had to adapt, and now part of what we do is for students around the world to help change Ukraine’s image and show the world what it has to offer.”
Alex started six games last season for the SLU football team, which was ranked in the top 10 nationally and reached the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament. He will return for the 2022 season, having already completed a degree in marketing, and is now aiming for a master’s degree in leadership and organizational development.
He started playing football with his father and other Ukrainian and Russian residents in Boston. During his visit to kyiv, he went with his uncle to see the Olympic Stadium. Now the pitch where his father played in his youth is destroyed.
“I’m here while kids younger than me are getting AK-47s and fighting in the streets,” Alex said. “So I’m going to do everything I can now by raising awareness.”
Henry Shterenberg likes to think he’s safe, but what he’s seen and heard isn’t reassuring. A Holocaust museum a short walk from his home was damaged and a bridge destroyed. An area near the zoo between his apartment and the city center came under fire. A residential area just west of his home was hit on Friday.
The days are mostly spent indoors with his toy terrier, Napoleon. He traveled to the nearest bomb shelters to familiarize himself with the space but stayed in his apartment to work on projects; he has also been interviewed by journalists around the world. If necessary, he says, he will take up arms.
When Henry arrived in the United States, he had virtually nothing. At first, Henry worked in a meat-packing deli, munching on slices when he was hungry, Alex said.
When he returned to Ukraine five years ago, Henry’s life was very different. Henry became president of the World Trade Center in kyiv. He recently worked on developing his country, including the country’s first “green city” in Hostomel, where there was extensive damage.
One day, Alex and Henry hope to join forces in Ukraine to help create a better future for the country.
“It’s stressful and conflicted right now because life here is so normal,” Alex said of St. Louis. “People go about their daily lives, and in my head, my dad is stuck in the middle of a war.”
Serge Zevlever of St. Louis helped hundreds of Ukrainian children with medical needs to be adopted by American families before he was killed during the Russian invasion of Kiev.