Imagine you’re a 15-year-old high school student in Eastern Europe, living a relatively carefree life, and getting schooled in American culture from Netflix shows like “Riverdale.” You learn you’ve won a competitive scholarship through the US State Department Future Leaders Exchange Program, or FLEX, that will take you to America for a year to live and study. A host family in Waukee, Iowa, has chosen you to live with them while you attend Waukee High School.
Your schoolmates back home, whose dreams of America were also formed largely through TV offerings, tell you how cool that is, how lucky you are. Your close friends and family are thrilled for you.
Where you are headed, they will know little of your home city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, or of the educational system, culture or language. But the FLEX program intends for you to help educate them, just as Americans will educate you on their world.
That was the backdrop against which Liza, whose full name is whose full name is Yelyzaveta Yaryshkina, arrived in Iowa last Sept. 9, wide-eyed and ready to jump right in. Despite all the newness, she found the transition easy.
“School is 100% different,” she said. Converting from the metric to the standard system of measurement was a challenge, the lack of a school dress code a relief. Instead of 18 different courses organized into 45-minute sessions, here she has four classes, each lasting one and-a-half hours a day.
Russian invasion brings horrible images, sends mom and brother fleeing
But little could Liza have imagined that within five months, her homeland would be battered by Russian forces, its buildings crumbling under airstrikes on live TV, pregnant women giving birth in bomb shelters and young people, including her friends, fleeing the country with their mothers. for survival.
Her own 9-year-old brother fled with their mother, a company manager, to Spain, where they’re staying with friends. But since men aren’t allowed to leave the country, Liza’s father, who has a car sales business, remains confined to their apartment building, interacting only with its other residents.
It’s impossible for the events back home not to preoccupy Liza. Ukraine has also become most of the world’s preoccupation.
“At first I was not trying to stress a lot,” she said.
But she fears, especially for her father. “He can’t leave his home and he can’t leave the country,” she said. “I’m calling him really often so we talk a lot, so he won’t be so sad.”
That’s a lot for a child to bear from so far away.
Donetsk is in what the Russians call Donetsk People’s Republic, whose government was installed by Russia in 2014. But Ukraine has considered it to be temporarily occupied Ukrainian territory. One of Russia’s first acts before sending in troops in February was to officially recognize the Donetsk republic and that of Luhansk, also on the east of Ukraine, as independent states.
Keeping calm would no doubt have been harder for Liza had her host family not been so caring, had they not hugged her and reassured her everything would be OK. Had her theater teacher not given her a blanket knitted in the colors of the Ukrainian flag, and had other teachers and classmates, fellow Des Moines-area international students and a local business not been so solicitous and supportive.
“At this point… she is our child and she will always be our child wherever she is,” said her host mother, Alli Johnson. “It’s like watching your kid go through anything you can’t fix. You reassure them that they’re safe and that the people they love are safe, and that this Iowa family is there if the other family needs anything.”
“Everybody takes really good care of me here,” said Liza. “Everyone is, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry.’ Americans, they are so nice. “
Exchange students in Iowa help raise money for Kyiv hospital
Besides school, tennis and the Future Business Leaders of America Club, she has found a place to put her energy about Ukraine, according to Johnson. She launched a fundraising campaign with two other foreign exchange students, Aisha Kademova of Kazakhstan, also at Waukee, and Bakai Tolundu of Kyrgyzstan, at Des Moines Roosevelt, They’re raising money for a maternity hospital in Kyiv. It happens to be the one where the obstetrician who delivered Liza is now practicing. It was Liza’s father who suggested it.
“Their furniture and windows are broken,” said Liza. “They can’t get enough things because of the crisis and a lot of people are not working. They really need money.”
I exchanged a few messages with that doctor early last week, after Liza put us in touch. We were making plans to speak when a new round of aggression was unleashed on Kyiv, and I haven’t heard back from her since. That’s how fluid things are in Ukraine these days.
A previous statement from the Livoberezhnyi Maternity Hospital in Kyiv said the shelling of the city had made “the logistics of medical and material support extremely complicated. Children and mothers are being cared for in bomb shelters or subway stations.”
BBC News reported earlier this month on the death of a pregnant woman and her baby following an air strike in Mariupol, a port city that’s part of the Donetsk regional administration.
Raygun takes rare step outside Midwest for students’ fundraiser
The three students’ efforts to help Ukraine brought them into contact with Mike Draper, the owner of Raygun, who has helped them design, print, and distribute Ukrainian-themed T-shirts to sell. He’s doing all the printing at cost and has set up and is managing a webstore for Students United for Ukraine: https://www.rayguncustom.com/collections/students-united-for-ukraine.
Draper said Raygun has done few if any fundraisers related to something not Midwest-based. “But this conflict feels like a worldwide, good-versus-evil situation,” he said. “It’s hard to stand on the sidelines and just watch.”
Said Liza about Draper, “He’s so nice. Always smiling, like the sun.”
“Increasing the awareness and helping the Ukrainian people is the goal of our project,” wrote Roosevelt student Bakai in an email, of his involvement. “Right now we are trying to schedule a table for us in the church and in one of the upcoming events in central Iowa. The responses are always different, some organizations can help us, others can not, but everyone is very supportive.”
The three students are going door to door with the T-shirts, and also selling them at school, with permission, over lunch hour. A few days ago Liza and Aisha went door-knocking in Waukee, hauling along a wagon full of them. In five hours, they made 600.
Liza, who initially observed that few people here knew about her homeland, said everyone they spoke to that day knew about the war on Ukraine. Her perceptions of Iowa had been equally limited. “I knew it was, like, fields and stuff,” she told me.
Now she’s finding it’s also full of heart.
Those who could afford to buy T-shirts and others donated what they could, “because they really wanted to be a part of it.” By mid-week, 1,200 had been raised towards their goal of 3,000.
Someday, when she looks back on her 15th year, Liza will likely see it as one of her most formative. Little could she have imagined that the year she first left home for real without her family would bring her face to face with so much more than the teenage angst of TV fare.
Nor could she have imagined that her relationships to America, and Americans, would play such a critical role in that period, providing safety and a way to reach back to her people at home.
Her exchange program formally ends in June, but for now it’s unclear what might happen then.
Liza turns 16 on April 3 but feels she has recently crossed a threshold.
“I feel like it’s making me like an adult,” she mused. “Do you know what I mean?”
One can only imagine.
To donate directly to Livoberezhnyi Maternity Hospital in Kyiv, go to https://pb6.com.ua/partners.