Khrystyna (16) left home in Lutsk (Ukraine) in September to participate in a year-long student exchange program at Connersville, Indiana. She couldn't contain her excitement.
"I wanted to live among American hosts. She said she wanted to share experiences.
She was looking forward to adopting American high school customs (homecoming dances, participating in jazz choir concerts) before returning home to her homeland.
However, Khrystyna was thrown off her feet last month when Russian forces invaded Ukraine. Khrystyna is one of hundreds of Ukrainian exchange students living in America who are worried about their safety and wondering where their homeland will be when they return home from war.
According to Pam Blackburn (senior regional director, Program for Academic Exchange), 200 teenagers from Ukraine are spending one year in American high school as part of the U.S. State Department's Future Leaders Exchange Program. This program helped Khrystyna move to Indiana. The exchange program organizers requested that students' last names not be released because of concerns about their safety in Ukraine.
Students and host families have been in constant communication with the State Department for weeks. They became more concerned by reports that Russian troops were massing at the Ukrainian border and an imminent invasion. Blackburn stated that when the invasion actually began, many young exchange students were shocked and shaken by the news. They had just six months ago said farewell to their peaceful homeland.
Khrystyna was 16 years old and celebrating with her family at an indoor waterpark when she discovered Russia had invaded Ukraine.
"At first I didn't believe it," Khrystyna said. You can't believe that your compatriots, your friends, and family, will have to flee from bombs landing on their homes, or fight for the survival of your country. Then I texted my parents to see all the news. It was quite difficult."
Amanda Catt, her American host mother, stayed with Khrystyna and worked to make her feel secure.
Catt stated that "The first night was difficult." "We didn’t get any sleep. She cried when I held her."
Khrystyna and her family are staying in Lutsk for the moment. However, other families of Ukrainian exchange students have fled.
Anastasiya (17) is a student at a Portland high school, Indiana this academic year. It is not far from Khyrstyna's school. Anastasiya is still far from her family. They had been in Zaporizhzhya their hometown until last week when Russian bombs made it unsafe to remain. They are now looking for a safe haven.
Anastasiya stated that six days ago, they made the decision to move because Russian troops were coming. They also bombed all of the surrounding towns. They've been driving for six consecutive days. Traffic is causing them to move so slowly. They don't know where to stop."
Valdyslav (17) claims that his hometown of Kharkiv has been repeatedly attacked. While he spends his time at Cincinnati's high school, his heart and mind are with his family in Ukraine. He particularly worries about his grandparents.
He said, "I try and contact them at minimum twice a day due to all the blasts in my town and because mine is only twenty miles from the border." It's very dangerous.
Some students can reach their families via phone while others have difficulty getting through.
Anna, 17, a 17-year-old from Mariupol, said that it is very difficult with data there. She is currently spending the year in Fountaintown. They can sometimes make phone calls but it takes a while. They don't even have electricity so they use their cars for charging their phones and computers to send me messages to let me know they are okay.
Students agree that anxiety can sometimes be too much on certain days.
Dasha, 16-year-old, is attending Indiana's Jay County high school. She said that she has learned the hard way to not be distracted by the devastation of images from attacks that dominate social media.
"I began Googling on the first day. She said that there were many videos of the event, with people dying. I shouldn't have done it. I was on my phone for two hours straight and just cried the entire time.
Dasha believes that sports and school are her refuge when stress is too much.
She said, "I have also taken long walks and started reading books." "It helps."
Students' host families and school communities have rallied to support them financially, as it is difficult for their parents to send money to Ukraine.
Blackburn stated that schools have arranged to pay for students' meals and other extracurricular activities. "They are paying for exchange students' telephone services so they can call home whenever they like."
Some schools have joined forces to help pay for prom dresses for Ukrainian students. Blackburn stated that host communities raise money to support the families of exchange students back in Ukraine.
Blackburn stated that the situation for students after the school year is over is uncertain.
Blackburn stated that the goal was to bring these children home to their parents safely. "If this is not possible due to the turmoil, the State Department will review it on a case by case basis. We wouldn't send our children home to a place that was unsafe.
The families of the students in Ukraine are terribly missing their children, but they are happy to know that they are safe and loved, thousands of kilometers away from war.
"Thank you," Gaylna (Khrystyna’s mother) said to Catt through tears during a Zoom conference this week. We love you for supporting Khrystyna.
Khrystyna was moved to tears when Catt hugged her.
Gaylna stated that she would love to hold Khrystyna, but it is safer for her to be with me in my arms. It's a huge relief for us.