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Exchange student stands up for Ukraine

FIFTEEN-YEAR-OLD DIANA HERASIM from Ukraine is an exchange student at Middlebury Union High School this year. She is worried about her family who is besieged by the Russian army back home, but she is fervent in belief in the Ukrainian people and vigorous in her support for her native country.
Independent photo/John S. McCright

MIDDLEBURY — When Diana Herasim left her European home last August to come to America and take part in a student exchange program she thought that the uneasy peace between her country and her neighbors would hold.

“I didn’t have any idea how this would change,” the 15-year-old Middlebury Union High School junior said in a Tuesday interview.

But change has come to her home country — Ukraine — and in a sudden and awful way.

Speaking five days after the Russian army invaded Ukraine, Herasim was calm, articulate and forceful in expressing her beliefs.

“I know my nation, I know how committed they are. We are ready to protect our country,” the Ukrainian national said.

In some ways Herasim is much like a typical MUHS student.

She has a favorite class; in her case it is philosophy.

“I’m really into thinking and pondering things,” she said.

Another favorite class is physical education. She’s active, and played Tiger field hockey last fall. She’s a big ping-pong player, back home. And there’s another sport she likes.

“I’m a boxer in Ukraine; I want to box in the national championship when I go back,” she said. “My host family got me a punching bag.”

But she’s so different from her peers here in that she her days include a lot of time worrying about the safety of her family, 4,000 miles away. Her father, Victor, and 25-year-old brother, Vladyslav, face daily threats from a hostile foreign army. Her friends back home tell her in texts about figuring out how to survive without necessary medication that has become unavailable, about how Russians are bombing hospitals and sending people away in buses to destinations unknown.

“What they are doing is cruel … but it’s not going to work,” Herasim said.

“I’m really proud of Ukraine,” she said, pointing to the flood of Ukrainian civilians who have volunteered for official and unofficial duty to fend off the invader.

“Those who can’t fight, do what they can,” Herasim said, noting that she’s heard of common people making Molotov cocktails — bottles filled with flammable liquids that can be thrown at Russian soldiers.

Herasim had some teenage Russian friends she had known before she came to the United States. She has reached out to them, but regrettably she said they parrot Russian government propaganda that says the occupying army is in Ukraine to “protect” people.

“They do believe it,” Herasim said. “That’s why they don’t communicate with me anymore.”

She has phone calls and Facetime chats with her family about once a day.

“It makes me calmer,” she said.

She texts with friends her own age back in Ukraine.

She said she looks at different news sources and has to compare them to figure out what is really going on back home.

Her dad is a truck driver, and her brother drives truck and runs his own business, though, Herasim said, he has essentially lost his business.

Herasim’s mother died two years ago.

She speaks highly of her Middlebury host family, Fernanda and Tim Wright, and their four children, Kaya, Kaden, Kendall and Kohen. The Wrights have been very supportive — praying and fasting for the people of Ukraine. Many of Herasim’s peers and teachers at MUHS have offered help.

Diana Herasim

“I’m really grateful for my community here,” Herasim said.

Herasim earned her spot in the exchange program — run by an organization called ASSE — because of her intelligence and spunk. She was chosen for a scholarship given to only 200 teens from among 10,000 applicants. She speaks Ukrainian and Russian and quite good English. She has a goal of learning Spanish and Chinese, too, so she can work in the foreign service.

She would like to attend college in the United States.

David Rose of Leicester, the local ASSE representative, said his organization is sponsoring many Ukrainian exchange students across the United States, and they are unsure what the future holds.

“These kids are scheduled to go home in a few months … but they may not have a home to go to,” he said.

“The biggest thing anyone in the U.S. can do is give financial support to the Ukrainians,” he added.

Herasim herself has a favorite charity to target funds to; it can be found online at bank.gov.ua/ua/news/all/natsionalniy-bank-vidkriv-spetsrahunok-dlya-zboru-koshtiv-na-potrebi-armiyi.

The young Ukrainian here in Middlebury also wonders what will happen when her departure date — June 21 — arrives. She is trying to stay positive.

“I keep in my head, ‘June 21.’ I hope for the best. I want to see my family safe and healthy,” she said.

It is too dangerous for her to return now, and she doesn’t know if she will be able to return when her exchange program ends in June.

“I want to go to my hometown, where all my memories of growing up are.”

At the same time she is realistic about what havoc a war can wreak.

“Everything changed,” she said.

She wants Americans to know that people in her hometown north of Crimea are dying.

“My mission here is to let people know what is going on in Ukraine.”

Her message to Americans: “Ukraine is a strong country. We are ready to fight.”

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