By Leslie Ballard
Mykola Dziuba is not like the other exchange students at Allegan High School this year. The 17-year old comes from war-ravaged Ukraine, a democracy fighting for its life since the Russians invaded his country on Feb. 24, 2022.
Mykola left his hometown of Kyiv in April to stay with some family friends in Schopfheim, Germany before arriving in Allegan in early January. Schopfheim, which is located near the French and Swiss borders, “is very beautiful,” and he enjoyed his stay there while learning some German.
“It is very important for me to learn about American culture and improve my English language so I can use what I’ve learned to improve my county, to make it more European, more contemporary,” he said.
He reports that “his family tries to be optimistic but it’s hard.” In addition to utilities being affected, “not much food is available in the grocery stores, and everyone is poor now because they can’t go to work” due to the disruptions the war has caused. For instance, Mykola says his father owns a photographic business and before the war worked 12-hour days 6 days a week. “Now he is lucky to work 3 hours before the electricity goes out. Everyone is poor. The economy is bad because of the war.”
As he speaks of the war and the impact it is having on his country, Mykola is composed, mature and confident in the spirit of the Ukrainians to be victorious.
While he is optimistic about the future of his country, he is not about the topic of peace talks.
“Ukraine tried for peace talks three times, and the response was to attack civilians.” He shakes his head and looks down at the floor when he says, “what Russian soldiers have done to people…”
Mykola tries to talk with his family every day but that depends on what is happening in Ukraine. Since the Russians have targeted artillery and missile attacks on power plants and other infrastructure as well as civilian centers. Ukrainians frequently lose electricity and/or water for 24 hours or more at a time after these attacks.
He misses his family and his girlfriend Marsha, who is an exchange student in Bloomfield, Iowa and whom he hasn’t seen in five months.
“I’ve made a lot of new friends in Germany and now here. “People here are so friendly, but they don’t ask me about the war.” Mykola feels welcome but he wants people to know about the war and how/why they can support Ukraine.
“The world has helped Ukraine a lot – US. UK, Germany, Poland, Italy, France and other countries – but we need more. We are winning this war, but we need to shorten the time it takes.”
He also notes that the assistance they need will not end when the war does. “We will need a lot of help with infrastructure – the electrical grid is completely devastated throughout my country.”
In the meantime, Mykola enjoys his classes in chemistry, pre-calculus, economics, English, and food. He likes pre-calc the best – “very different from Ukraine because how to solve problems is done differently in the two countries, and I like knowing more ways to find the solution.” Chemistry is also very different because Ukraine, like Europe, is on the metric system.
He was a boxing champ at his school in Ukraine. Now he is taking a strength and conditioning class at AHS and hopes to learn a new sport like golf.
Strength and conditioning also “helps me get rid of depressive thoughts. We need to be optimistic and healthy to help all Ukrainians to survive,” he believes.
Studying hard to learn from his US classes, Mykola also studies for the senior exam he will take in the spring when he returns to Ukraine.
His dream when he was younger was to be a Formula 1 pilot, “but you need to start training at about age two, so I was too old when I decided.” Now he thinks he will become a pilot, which will enable him to help his family. “No matter what, I want my family and my parents to be comfortable financially.”
At home he likes to hang out with his family, spend time with his girlfriend, and read or go biking. While he is in Michigan, he would like to see Lake Michigan and try his hand at skiing.
The differences between Ukraine and America?
Small things such as at McDonalds, where the color of the napkins differs from brown here and white in Ukraine, plastic straws here and paper in Ukraine and “you have the largest French fries in the world!”
He notes that American grocery stores also have more products and more sizes, especially big sizes such as a gallon of ice cream, as well as many more types of soda.
American reliance on cars is another difference. “Everyone has a car, even teenagers.” In Ukraine, people walk, ride a bike, bus or train. Kyiv has a population of close to 3 million, comparable to Chicago, so public transportation is widely available.
“Gas is so much cheaper here – we pay about $8-9 for a gallon.”
On the other hand, “Your phone/internet is so expensive! We pay $1 a month for unlimited talk and text at home.”
Understandably, Mykola misses his parents and 11-year old brother most, along with having conversations in Ukrainian, Ukrainian food, friends, school, teachers and the opportunities he had before the war.
“Be optimistic and move in the right direction” is his focus for now.
Like many Americans, he has stopped watching the news and relies on his family and friends to inform him of what is happening at home.
“I want to concentrate on studies, my future, the future of my country and the future of my family.”
“Don’t believe all you hear on the news. Give your attention to the people who know the way things really are. They know much more than you see or hear,” he advises.
Mykola also believes the Russian people need to understand what is actually going on. He is stunned that “71% still support Putin” although those statistics may not be accurate given the crackdown on any protests or opposition to the war. “They [the Russian people] need to see that in the world something bad will happen.”
“I hope my experiences and the experiences of other Ukrainian exchange students in Europe and America helps our country.”
Mykola and German exchange student Leo Barkman live with Meghan and Rickie Jones and their four daughters. Megan works for Face the World and is seeking families interested in hosting students from abroad.
When asked whether he thinks Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a good leader for this tragic times, Mykola smiles proudly. “He is a good person, a kind person.” He salutes by pressing his fist to his heart, “He is my brother.”
What will he do if the war is over when he returns home?
“I will make the biggest fireworks you’ve ever seen!”