CROWN CITY, Ohio — Coming to the United States of America was once just a dream for Khrysta Svystovych but thanks to a scholarship that dream soon became a reality, bringing her from Ukraine to America as an exchange student.
“I got in America on ninth of September,” Svystovych said. “I won a scholarship for one year here. I just always wanted to come here.”
One of Svystovych’s favorite things has been becoming a cheerleader, something that does not exist in her home country.
“Gosh, I love that. That’s the best thing to see people[’s] emotion, rise people’s spirit,” Svystovych said. “That’s the best thing, I just love when people smile when you cheer for them and when people repeat after you and you’re like ‘wow.’”
The cheer team is where Svystovych met Amber Miller, coach and building substitute.
“I then realized how much cheerleaders really do spell,” Miller said. “Because I was having to teach the spelling words as if each letter was a word, so they weren’t overthinking the spelling of it and just thought of it as more of a sentence to say. It was an easier comprehension for them.”
Miller said Svystovych and another exchange student went all in with the new-to-them sport.
“It was really fun to watch them,” Miller said. “It’s the one true American experience that we can offer our exchange students because they can do cross country and track, things like that in other places, but most countries don’t have cheerleading.Giving them their cheer uniforms, they literally jumped up and down. It was very sweet.”
Svystovych was enjoying her experience in America, though she knew there were some Russian soldiers in Belarus, a county that boarders Russia and Ukraine.
“But I talked to my parents after that and they said, ‘no everything is calm here. We are not worrying about anything,’” Svystovych said. “They said there was several fire[s] around our town, but they said probably Russians are firing the houses around. Just like pro-Russian people, but nothing like serious was happening.”
An unexpected wake-up call
While Svystovych’s parents reassured her about things back at home, things quickly changed as Russian President Vladimir Putin ignored the requests calling for peace from Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. There were soon reports of Putin calling for attacks in the capital, Kyiv, and other cities across Ukraine.
“I just woke up one morning and my host mom, she always calls to check if I’m awake, and she called me and she was like, ‘did you talk to your parents this day?’ I was like, ‘no, I just woke up,’” Svystovych said. “‘Did you know what’s happening in Ukraine?’ I was like ‘no, what’s happening there?’ She was like, ‘they’re bombing Ukraine around.’ And I was like what? I didn’t believe it.”
Svystovych said she immediately called and talked to her sister.
“She say, ‘yes, they are bombing, but we’re not scared because we were ready for that, like our government was prepared. The war was going to happen, We all knew that something was going to happen,’” Svystovych recalled. “But it just was a shock that it happened, like immediately in the morning.”
Svystovych’s parents had jobs in Poland and her sister said they had just left to go back for work before the war started.
“They didn’t know that war will start or something, they just went to job, to work,” Svystovych said. “And the first thing they knew in the morning is that the war started right after they left.”
Svystovych has five siblings — four brothers and one sister — who were still in Ukraine.
“I was really worried about them. I was really afraid for them,” Svystovych said. “They [siblings] were in Ukraine, I guess for two weeks and then three of them went for parents to [go] to Poland. So, three of them, like the youngest one [is] with my parents in Poland.”
Svystovych is from the Lviv region, just 43 miles from the Poland border. At the time of Svystovych’s interview with Ohio Valley Publishing, Lviv had not yet been attacked.
Two of Svystovych’s brothers were still in Ukraine, preparing for what was to come.
“One of them will be mobilized soon if the Russians [are] going to attack my region,” Svystovych said. “My oldest one, he is a priest and they offered him to go to Italy because his college was moved to Italy. But he refused and he say he going to stay. He wants to stay and fight because you know, it’s our land, what’s important for us.”
While Lviv had not been attacked yet, areas all around the region had been bombed.
“The first day I called my sister, she said, ‘oh, people are panicking,’” Svystovych said. “People are moving from towns, people are packing suitcases, the shops very full. She couldn’t get in line to get like bread, because we usually buy bread everyday.”
Svystovych said guns are illegal in Ukraine, so to protect themselves citizens were using Molotov cocktails and what she said was called a “blockbust” — a type of weapon where “they put in the stuff… make shoot from that [opposite] side.”
“They’re doing this, and then when school started, like for distance education, they were talking about war and they were talking how to pack bags,” Svystovych said. “So for my sister, it was to pack their bags and be ready to run to forest because we don’t have bomb shelters in our town. And for us, it was the safest place.”
Svystovych’s best friend is in another city, one her brother was eventually in, and they told her there were sirens everywhere and at one point they had to hide as they were bombing that city.
She said her brother tried to go to college and was sent home, so he found a ride from a random person who drove him back home, which was four hours away. Svystovych said her brother was supposed to have surgery — the type is unknown as Svystovych’s family does not want her to worry — that day, but due to full hospitals it had to be cancelled.
A different home
Svystovych talked to her parents on Sunday, March 13. She said her mother is extremely emotional and empathetic to all that is going on and she is anxious about Svystovych’s brothers being in Ukraine still, by themselves.
Svystovych said she wanted her family to go to the safest place, but her dad refuses.
“My dad is worried. He wanted to go back to Ukraine to fight, he’s fighting right now,” Svystovych said. “He said he don’t want to be far right from Ukraine, they are in Poland right now, but they’re closer to Ukraine. So, I said just go further but he said he want to be close to Ukraine. There are my grandparents, so he could go back and just save them [if] something happens.”
Svystovych said everyday her family hears of more deaths. She said it is hard to believe that this is happening.
“Like the city I was in, they don’t look the same anymore,” Svystovych said. “I left one Ukraine and I’m going to go back to a completely different country and it’s awful to see that. I just can’t realize that it’s actually happening in my country.”
It is unknown where Svystovych will go at the end of the school year. She said she can go to another country with relatives, to Poland with her family or somewhere else. While her parents want her to stay where she is to be safe, she said she still does not know.
When the war broke out, students at South Gallia High School were affected differently with one of their own worrying about her family.
“It was the first time I think it’s really affected kids at this level,” Miller said. “They realize it’s not just something they’re seeing on TV. They have someone in their school, that it’s actually affecting.”
Miller said the next day she thought maybe they could find a way to support Svystovych. She said it was hard for them to do much being in the United States, especially children, but there had to be something.
“I had the idea of doing something with the sunflower,” Miller said. “The sunflower is the Ukraine’s national flower and it kind of started becoming an image of rebellion in Ukraine for the war, but for the rest of the world, it kind of became a symbol of solidarity.”
It was just days after the war started when Miller approached the school’s Pep Club about the idea. Miller said they were all for the idea. Students used their intervention period to cut sunflowers, she said.
“I’ve never seen children cut flowers so fast in their lives,” Miller said.
More than 100 sunflowers were cut out and hung all over the school to surprise Svystovych. The students also found a Helen Keller quote relating to sunflowers to put on a banner and hang up with “Pray for Ukraine.”
Miller said the situation has opened a lot of valuable conversations and good questions with the students around the school.
Miller said Svystovych had no idea about the project, but Miller stands at the entrance of the school each morning and witnessed her reaction.
“She walked in and she looked at me and she said, ‘I love the sunflowers, I know they’re for me.’ So I was like ‘she gets it,’” Miller said. “And I was hoping she’d understand that they were for her. She really enjoyed getting to see them.”
“Oh, that was the warmest thing in my heart,” Svystovych said. “I almost cry, because it’s so nice. I mean, to have the part of Ukraine here and see the people actually care. I didn’t expect this kind of things. And it’s made me much happier. Much calmer. And I know that people here care. It’s amazing to know that people actually care.”
Svystovych said the school also did a blue and yellow day, donning her native country’s colors in support. She said her host family has been beyond supportive of her and the situation.
“They helped me a lot, from the first day they were really, really supporting me,” Svystovych said. “She’s [host mom] asking about my parents, every time they say they are ready to help whenever, if my parents wants to come here.”
Svystovych said her host mom welcomed her famliy and is making arrangements and collecting things to aid Ukrainian refugees.
“They’re doing a lot. I’m really grateful,” Svystovych said.
To lend a hand
Svystovych said she thinks the best way for people to help is to donate to Ukraine’s national bank donation site.
“It’s the best way because right now our economics is going down,” Svystovych said. “Need to pay for our military and this money can also help refugees.”
Even if someone is unable to donate money, Svystovych said anything helps, whether it is helping someone directly from Ukraine, donating something, etc.
“I just learned that my nation is, I will never expect my nation to be that strong, I mean that united right now,” Svystovych said. “We are inspired. But we are not scared.”
It has been almost a month and the sunflowers still adorn the walls of South Gallia High School and the students are still as supportive as ever of their friend and classmate, something that has made a lasting impact on Svystovych.
© 2022, Ohio Valley Publishing, all rights reserved.
Brittany Hively is a staff writer for Ohio Valley Publishing. Follow her on Twitter @britthively; reach her at (740) 446-2342 ext 2555.