Westmont Magazine Surviving the Chaos of War-Torn Kyiv

by Sharon Savely Odegaard ’72

Matthew Smith ’00 knows firsthand the terror of residing in a war-torn country and losing almost everything. He’s still living through a time of uncertainty.

The war in Ukraine erupted as Matthew worked at the French International School in Kyiv. Arriving in 2019, he taught English and math there.

On February 24, 2022, he woke up to the chilling news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which shattered his comfortable life in the city overnight.

Matthew and his wife, Helen, fled. “We left behind most of our possessions: family memorabilia, hobby stuff, books, pictures, furniture, linens, plants, everything,” he says. “My wife underwent stillbirth surgery a few days earlier, which made our journey even more arduous.”

Based on advice from the U.S. Embassy, the couple headed to the Romanian border at Siret. “We tried to take our car across the border, but after 18 hours, we were forced out of line and couldn’t get back in,” he says. “I prayed about how we could cross the border the following day. Then I thought, why take our car? Let’s just walk!”

After hiking two miles to the border and waiting in line for six hours, they made it to safety. A friend in France booked tickets for Matthew and Helen to fly to Paris, and they lived with him and his family in Arras, France, for three months.

In September, after months of staying in people’s homes, they decided to return to Kyiv. But on October 10, bombs hit the city. They needed to leave again.

After months of applying for jobs, Helen received an offer in January 2023 from a medical device company in Santa Barbara. Given only one day to answer, the couple decided to make the move. After four homes in five weeks, they finally found a place where they can settle for now. Life continues to bring challenges.

Matthew spent years abroad teaching at various international schools throughout the world, including China, Hong Kong, Czech Republic and Ukraine. His passion for working with international students started at Westmont. Bart Tarman, the campus chaplain, informally adopted a student from Bhutan, who enrolled at Westmont. “Everything was foreign to him,” Matthew says. “I felt compelled to help him and become his friend.” Eventually, Matthew went abroad to teach.

Westmont gave him the tools and resources to step out into the world. Matthew sees the college as a spiritual womb, where students grow and prepare for life intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. He says a theme ran through his years at Westmont:

“You mattered. You weren’t just a number.

“The professors and staff and even President Winter wanted to help students in their journey with God.”

Matthew considers the chaos of war-torn Kyiv and his experiences of the past year as a season of being refined. He and Helen remain in the midst of the testing. “Every day is a step of faith,” he says. “We were stripped of everything; we hit rock bottom.”

Yet Matthew keeps his focus on the theme embedded during his Westmont days: Each person matters to God. “I ask myself every day, ‘How can I imitate the love of Christ with people I interact with?” he says. “How can I be an expression of God’s love to others?” Meanwhile, he trusts God to comfort and sustain him and his wife.