By Andrea Agardy, staff writer
Like countless exchange students before her, 16-year-old Maryna Kryshchuk boarded a flight for the United States expecting to spend the better part of a year learning about American culture firsthand.
What she never expected however, was for a bloody conflict to break out in her country while she was 5,000 miles from her home, her friends and her family.
Maryna, a junior at Coffee County Central High School, hails from Pavilivka, a small village in northwest Ukraine, roughly 300 miles from the capital of Kiev. Maryna arrived in Tennessee on July 31, and in the intervening months she has watched from afar as her country’s president was overthrown and indicted for mass murder following the deaths of demonstrators, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions to annex Crimea, prompting sanctions against Russia from the United States and the European Union (EU).
Maryna said she first became interested in coming to America after a conversation with a school friend in Ukrainian city of Svitlovodsk.
“My friend at school said there will be a contest for people to try their English skills,” Maryna said. The prize was a trip to America. “There were 8,000 people in the first level and 200 got to come to the U.S.”
Maryna said she knew a little about the United States before her trip, but knew nothing about Tennessee. Her ultimate destination of Manchester, where she has been staying in the home of Bill and Amy Nickels, was chosen for her by ASSE International Student Exchange Program.
“I didn’t expect it would be so country, but I like it,” she said.
Maryna’s family, which includes her parents, 14-year-old brother and 11-year-old sister, supported her desire to come to the U.S.
“My parents really wanted me to go,” she said. “They were more excited than I was.”
Maryna acknowledged having pre-trip jitters, saying she knew she would miss her friends and family, “but I will see them soon.”
Her efforts to keep in touch with family back home have become even more important since the Ukrainian conflict began last fall.
“It’s scary and upsetting,” she said. “Ukraine is not Ukraine anymore, so I don’t know.”
Two signatures Friday on opposite sides of Europe deepened the divide between East and West, as the European Union pulled Ukraine closer into its orbit and Russia formally annexed Crimea.
In this “new post-Cold War order,” as the Ukrainian prime minister called it, besieged Ukrainian troops on the Crimean Peninsula faced a critical choice: leave, join the Russian military or demobilize. Ukraine was working on evacuating its outnumbered troops in Crimea, but some said they were still awaiting orders.
Many eyes were on Putin, as they have been ever since pro-Western protests drove out Ukraine’s president a month ago, angering Russia and plunging Europe into its worst crisis in a generation.
Despite those clouds, Putin painted Friday’s events in victorious colors, ordering fireworks in Moscow and Crimea reminiscent of the celebrations held when Soviet troops drove the Nazis from occupied cities in World War II.
At the Kremlin, Putin signed parliamentary legislation incorporating Crimea into Russia, hailing it as a “remarkable event.”
At nearly the same time in a ceremony in Brussels, EU leaders sought to pull the rest of cash-strapped Ukraine westward by signing a political association agreement with the new Ukrainian prime minister.
The highly symbolic piece of paper is part of the same EU deal that touched off Ukraine’s political crisis when then-President Viktor Yanukovych rejected it in November and chose a bailout from Russia instead. That ignited months of protests that eventually drove him from power.
Ukraine’s new prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a leader of the protest movement, eagerly pushed for the EU agreement.
“This deal meets the aspirations of millions of Ukrainians that want to be a part of the European Union,” Yatsenyuk said in Brussels.
The EU hit 12 more people with sanctions Friday over Russia’s annexation of Crimea, bringing its list of those facing visa bans and asset freezes to 33. They include one of Russia’s deputy prime ministers, a Putin adviser and the speaker of Russia’s upper house of Parliament, according to a document obtained by The Associated Press.
President Barack Obama on Thursday ordered a second round of sanctions against 20 members of Putin’s inner circle and a major bank supporting them. The list included four businessmen considered to be Putin’s lifelong friends.
Moscow retaliated by banning nine U.S. officials and lawmakers from entering Russia.
Putin said he sees no immediate need for further Russian retaliation over the U.S. sanctions, adding that Russia will keep funding a program jointly with NATO to service Afghan helicopters and train their crews.
However, just a few hours later, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Moscow will “harshly” respond to the latest round of U.S. sanctions, and Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Russia will retaliate.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told Putin on Friday that 72 Ukrainian military units in Crimea have decided to join the Russian military. His claim couldn’t be independently confirmed.
At the Ukrainian military air base in Belbek, outside the Crimean port of Sevastopol, Col. Yuly Mamchur told reporters he was still waiting for orders from his commanders on whether to evacuate.
Amid its political crisis, Ukraine is teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, struggling to pay off billions of dollars in debts in the coming months. The U.S. and the EU have pledged to quickly offer a bailout.
Precious calls from home
Phone calls and emails from home are even more precious now than they had been before for Maryna because, she said, no one is sure how long the lines of communication will remain open.
“My mom is really scared,” she said. “She’s so upset with what is happening now. People went to the square in Kiev to talk to the president because their voices were not being heard. He was too close to Russia… My mom thought the people would become quiet, but they kept going because they became so patriotic.”
Maryna said she does not believe Crimea is all Putin is after.
“Putin says he wants to save the Russian people in Crimea, but I don’t understand,” Maryna said. “Save from what? I love Russian people, but Putin is no good… Putin wants to do so much with Ukraine, but it’s not his business.”
Maryna is scheduled to return to Ukraine on May 14, and plans to attend university in Kiev with the ultimate goal of launching a career as a journalist. She acknowledged having mixed feelings about returning home.
“I don’t know what I’m coming home to and I’m scared,” she said, adding all she and her family want is a free Ukraine. “I like it here and I want to finish this program, but I’m scared and I want to be home. Even with so much happening, I’d like to be there with my family.”
Andrea Agardy can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.