LAWRENCE, Ind. – As deadly attacks against Ukraine ramp up once again, many Ukrainians have found refuge all across the U.S., including right here in Indiana.
Iryna Vynnyk, 17, came to Indiana a year ago to begin her studies in the United States. She is a student at Lawrence North High School. Vynnyk said she had a friend who once studied abroad, and it inspired her to do the same.
The 17-year-old high school exchange student came to America before the war abroad started.
“I knew that it’s like a 10-month program and I’ll be back and everything is going to be the same as it used to be,” Vynnyk said.
Unfortunately, war erupted between Ukraine and Russia several months into her studies.
“When I was coming to America, I did not know that my exchange year would be longer than it’s supposed to be,” she said.
Vynnyk now enters her second year as a student at Lawrence North. As war continued, she decided to continue her studies here in Indiana. Vynnyk said she still remembers the very night she learned of the war. She said she could not sleep.
“It was really hard mentally at the very beginning of the war,” she said.
Vynnyk said she followed the news very closely, also keeping in touch with family and friends abroad.
“Everything just seemed so surrealistic,” she said. “Just like this is not happening. I read the news about this city getting bombed, this city getting bombed, and I was like, ‘This is not happening, this is not happening, this is not happening.’ But I had to understand that it is happening.”
She keeps in touch with her mother almost every day. Fortunately, she said her mother is safely in Belgium at this time. It can still be challenging to hear about the war, which is exactly why Vynnyk’s host family always tries to be there for her when they can.
“We try not to push,” her host father, Andy Kirby, described. “At this point she’s been with us long enough we can kind of tell when she wants to talk about it and when she doesn’t want to talk about it. Overall, it’s kind of just being there for her and listening to her if she wants to complain about what’s going on or just being easy to talk to when she needs that too.”
After the war started, Vynnyk helped her school raise $3,500 to help Ukrainian refugees.
“We also had pins that say ‘I stand with Ukraine’ and I’m still seeing people wearing those pins,” she said. “So it’s really cool.”
In the meantime, Vynnyk said she has really enjoyed her time with her host parents Andy and Kaity Kirby. The trio have traveled to several spots across the U.S., including exciting destinations like Niagara Falls and Chicago.
“That was you know, a very like happy birthday,” she described. “If 7-year-old me heard that my 17th birthday would be spent in Chicago, I would be like, ‘Wow, that’s cool!’”
She and her host mom are planning to take a trip to Los Angeles over fall break, something she is very excited about.
“That was like my dream to see the ocean,” Vynnyk said. “I don’t know why, but like I love water. I don’t know how to swim though. I love water, and my dream is to live somewhere by the sea or ocean.”
As the war continues, Vynnyk focuses on the positive moments. She said she is especially looking forward to graduation.
“It still seems crazy! I think I will finally realize it when I hold my American diploma and I’m like, ‘Yes, I did it!’”
Vynnyk’s host family has enjoyed all of the special moments as well. They said they look forward to keeping in touch with her just like they have with previous exchange students.
“Just those things that make a family,” Kaity Kirby described. “Spending time together, whether its watching jeopardy or she knows I need a hug. She cooks dinner with me. You know, just all of that kind of stuff that makes a family that we love too. Not only the big stuff, but those little things because when they go home, those are the things we remember.”
Vynnyk said she asks people to still keep Ukraine in their thoughts, as war still seems far from over.