The Ukraine crisis is personal for me, now that I know a family from there. I am a host parent for students from the Global Outreach Catholic Exchange program (GO), and am currently hosting a Polish student. One of her classmates is our very first Ukrainian student. Her name is Vika, and she is 16 years old, and living and studying at a Catholic High School in Western Wisconsin. Her parents are in Lviv, Ukraine.
I got acquainted online with Vika’s mom, Tanya, when we were in the midst of COVID here, causing Vika’s arrival in the US to be impossible in 2020. We had some hope in late 2020 that we might be able to host students for one school semester in January 2021, and I volunteered to host Vika at that time. Of course, COVID took away that opportunity, too. However, in the meantime, I had some great correspondences with Vika and Tanya, and have come to regard them as friends. They sent me a beautiful Ukrainian tea set that is one of my most treasured possessions.
When finally we were able to host students for 2021-22, I couldn’t be Vika’s host mom, as I had already committed to take my current Polish student, Wiktoria. However, I was one of the people who went to meet students at the Chicago airport on arrival day last August, and Vika was the first to arrive. We were so relieved to see her. She had never flown before, not even with family, and had to change planes twice in Europe to get to her. She was thrilled that it actually went smoothly, and proud of herself for doing it. These students’ courage continues to astound me, having hosted 3 students now myself. I can’t imagine myself at 16 or 17 going to live in another country with people I’d never met. But they have an American dream, and bravely pursue it.
I got to spend time with Vika recently, when I assisted at the Mid-Year Gathering of all the 22 GO students from their various US homes in Wisconsin and Nebraska. She is very happy in her host family, with a host sister her own age, and two younger ones, and really terrific host parents. They have accommodated her vegan diet (no small task) and taken her warmly into their family. She is thriving, and her confidence and English fluency were observably stronger. She has developed good solid friendships with her peers from GO who originate from Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Lithuania.
I’ve been corresponding with her on Messenger in recent days. She said she’s terrified for her parents’ safety. It’s hard to go to sleep not knowing if she will be able to talk to them the next day. They are in Lviv, close to the Polish border, which has not yet been a target of fighting. She has an open invitation to come to stay with us, and there are seven other GO students in my area, so she knows she has their support. They are in contact with her often also.
I also have been in touch with her mother, Tanya, on Messenger. She is the one who sent me the message from their mayor, which I shared in another diary. She does not talk about leaving; rather she talks about staying to fight. Her husband is in the age range to be conscripted, but I have no doubt he would volunteer. Her spirit is impressive, as is her devotion to Ukraine as a beautiful, free democracy. She is proud of her President and the people joining him in holding off the Russians. She was grateful that I shared the earlier diary with this group on Daily Kos.
My former exchange students in Budapest, Hungary and Bratislava, Slovakia, are also worried that their countries are vulnerable to Putin, who they consider a psychopath. One of them prepared food with her family and they took it over to a refugee shelter, and saw a large number of people staying there. My current student from a village near Warsaw tells me her parents are getting ready to accommodate refugees if given the opportunity.
There are a few things we can do to support citizens and refugees:
1. Contact your legislators to approve the aid package they are supposed to vote on tomorrow.
2. Donate to supportive agencies like United Ukrainian American Relief Committee.
3. Spread accurate information to counter the trumpishness of some Americans. My Polish student and her Slovak classmate were shocked at how callous their American classmates and even some teachers were about this invasion. Making jokes and sarcastic remarks happened several times on Thursday. After I talked to the principal of their school, there is an assembly planned to educate students and teachers about the dangers to democracy and the basic human rights that we Catholics are supposed to value (yes, it’s a Catholic school, where I expected better).
Let’s not let this become “old news” like most things do after a few days. The world changed profoundly this week, and we need to reclaim it for democracy.