Children's Author Michael Sampson Helping Ukrainian Refugees in Poland

The coauthor of Chicka, Chicka 1, 2, 3 and other titles was teaching in Ukraine on a Fulbright Scholarship before being relocated to Warsaw, where he now helps resettle Ukrainian refugees.

It was another sleepless night for children’s author Michael Sampson. These days, he jumps at every text message and lies restless with worry and guilt.

Michael Sampson's friend sent him a picture of him,
his wife, and cat in a bomb shelter.
All photos courtesy of Michael Sampson

“I have a warm apartment with food and water, and I shudder to think of children and parents in Ukraine who may not have gas or electricity and are surrounded by the sounds and pounding of war and Russian forces,” Sampson wrote in an email to SLJ from an apartment in Warsaw, Poland, where he was relocated from his Fulbright Scholar assignment in Dnipro, Ukraine. “I wake at every text message, afraid of new negative developments in the war. All my Fulbright colleagues report the same. We worry about our friends left behind in Ukraine and feel guilty that we are not there to support them.”

Sampson had spoken with SLJ the day before. But when morning came, he had more to share—more thoughts on the war, more news from those still in Ukraine or who have just fled, more hope that telling these stories could somehow help.

The author—who has co-authored many books with Bill Martin Jr., including Chicka Chicka 1, 2, 3The Bill Martin Jr Big Book of Poetry, and the forthcoming Armadillo Antics—chose Ukraine as his Fulbright location because his wife’s family is from there. She and their 12-year-old daughter joined him in Dnipro.

Sampson on his first day at Dnipro
National University in Ukraine.

In Ukraine, Sampson taught a class at Dnipro National University. As part of his research project, he also worked with teachers and children in second through eighth grade to teach English with new strategies that he developed using children’s books. Throughout his time in Ukraine and now Poland, he also has taught an online course at St. John’s University.

In November, Sampson was concerned when the U.S. State Department issued warnings of Russian troops amassing along the Ukraine border. But the Ukrainian people he knew were not concerned. Troops had been there since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, they told him; nothing would happen.

But the U.S. State Department thought otherwise, and on January 24, pulled the Fulbright Scholars from Ukraine. Russia invaded Ukraine about a month later. Now Sampson spends his time in Poland doing whatever he can to help Ukrainians.

The Fulbright group teaching in Ukraine was given the option of returning home or going to Poland to do what they could to help Ukrainians. Only one of the 18 scholars chose to go home, according to Sampson, whose wife and daughter returned home to New York. He and his wife talk and text often, as he tries to keep her updated on the situation from there and calm her fears. While her mother is no longer in Ukraine, her brother remains as part of the Ukrainian effort to fight the Russian forces.

“The citizens are all determined to repel the Russian invasion, so everyone's pitching in and helping so he's there so she has a lot of worry,” he says.

[READ: Resources to Help Students Process the Russian Invasion of Ukraine]
People hug at the border between
Poland and the Ukraine.

In Poland, Sampson is charged with helping refuge families get settled. He rents a car, makes the four-hour drive to the border then brings them back to Warsaw, sets them up in an apartment, takes them grocery shopping, and connects them to local resources. The people he sees have all made it safely to Poland, but there is no celebration.

“They feel guilty, because family and friends are there and they're here,” says Sampson. “They're safe, but they think they should be [in Ukraine.] And so it's just, it's really a nightmare in terms of the feelings they have and how they're dealing with it. And you know, and some people [tell them] ‘You should have stayed here and helped the war effort.’ It's tough.”

So far, Sampson has helped five or six families get from the border to Warsaw. He continues to teach his Dnipro National University class virtually now, but the course format is not the only difference.

“The boys are actually in the army fighting the Russians, and the girls—a lot of them are going to the hospital to be nurses and so forth, because there are so many wounded soldiers,” he says.

But he is there at the other end of the Microsoft Teams connection for anyone who can show up and wants to learn or just talk.

“I think I'm working more as a counselor,” says Sampson.

He spends much of his time texting and emailing the people he knows who remain in Ukraine. His communications with the elementary school teachers are harrowing, while also offering hope for normal times ahead when they can meet in peace. (The educators' names in the text exchanges below have been changed.)

Sampson with students in Ukraine before the war.

One teacher stopped responding a few days before Sampson spoke with SLJ. As he worries about her and the others, he continues to teach his online course St. John’s and Dnipro National University, as well as work on his books, which now includes a project about Martin’s life—something Sampson has wanted to take on for years but didn’t have the time.

As he works on new titles, he can’t help thinking about the stories of the people around him and those still in Ukraine. In a recent conversation with a history professor at Michigan State University, they discussed a book about children and war.

“What it would be like? How do you make it positive but realistic?” Sampson says. “I'm sure there'll be something that comes out of these experiences.”

Sampson’s Fulbright period ends June 30, but he plans to return to the United States in April for a planned two-week Armadillo Antics book tour, during which he is scheduled to speak at the Texas Library Association conference and the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. In the meantime, Sampson does whatever he can to make people in the United States aware of what’s happening in Poland and Ukraine with the hope that people will be moved to help however they can.

“All I can do now is help raise funds for Ukraine and write about the horrors of war and what they are facing,” he says. “I have a dream for peace and going back to see the land and people I have come to love.”

Author Image
Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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