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Grow Where Planted



Reprinted from The Hilltopper Magazine, Fall 2022



“My favorite animal is dinosaurs,” giggled the beautiful fifteen-year-old in front of me with pink manicured nails and a shyly genuine smile, “and I loooove pizza!”

Anna “Anya” Gorishnia ’24 is a Marshall international student from Kharkiv, Ukraine. When we spoke, she had been in the United States for just ten days—new to an American education at our school, exploring our city and country for the very first time. I was introduced to Anya when I set out looking for someone in our Hilltopper community who could tell me a story that would paint a picture through words resembling one of those trees that sprouts on the side of a cliff. Those growths that photographers are especially drawn to, in an impossible crevice, thriving in an unexpected place, and all the more beautiful and strong because of it. 

While 11th grade Anya is every bit what you would expect from a normal teenager, she has bloomed forth from an extraordinary history of life experience, and she was gracious enough to share this diverse perspective with me. I began our meeting by asking her to tell me her story, and she jumped right in…

“I woke up that morning and my mom said, ‘We need to go.’ When I asked why, she only replied, ‘Because, we just need to; take your clothes and go.’ I asked what happened and she couldn’t say. She couldn’t explain that the war had started because I was too young to understand. I just took my dog and said, ‘I’m ready!’—‘Quick, quick, quick, we have to go,’ she told me.”

In the summer of 2014, Anya’s idyllic five-year-old life was abruptly altered with the beginning of war in Luhansk, Ukraine—her home and place of birth. After the hurried exit that morning, she and her mother left her father, their house, belongings, and life behind to travel five hours to the city of Kharkiv where her father’s parents were waiting. She was just a small child, much too young to understand war and unable to understand why she couldn’t just go back to her home when she begged over and over. Her well-intentioned mother couldn’t begin to try to explain the complexities and atrocities of violent conflict to her. Anya began second grade in Kharkiv. Her father eventually joined them a year later, they moved into their own home, and her parents went to work. 

It wasn’t until Anya was around eight or nine years old, when she received her first cell phone and had internet access, that she was able to fully explore the topic that her parents had quietly alluded to. She voraciously read everything she could about her country and was finally able to answer the question that had perplexed her young mind for years: 

What is the war?”

At the end of February 2022, the world watched Ukraine in helpless horror as Russia began an unthinkable assault, relentlessly bombing the city center of Kharkiv. 

“This is my city. It was so bad. I live two minutes from there,” she shared as she pulled up a YouTube video titled Close the Sky Over Ukraine. As I watched sickening images of war and death flash on the screen, she continued, “This day, this is the worst day of my life. This one.” She pointed at the screen. “We just stayed at home and can hear the sounds of this—we can’t do something. We need to just sit, just wait. What will happen? I was seeing all of this with my eyes, in the streets, in my city. It was all bad, every day, hearing the sounds from the streets… it was planes, Russia bombing Ukraine, and I was really scared about this.” 

She continued, “We stayed in Kharkiv during this time—the first month of war was the worst month of my life, worrying every day.” She deflects back to the screen before us and points out a room full of young toddlers. “These are the children without parents because their parents died in the war. I think I will never forget. This is war.”

Because of those constant bombings, Anya is still afraid of airplane sounds in the sky. Her comments played on repeat in my head later that day as Marshall School had an emergency evacuation practice drill. With sirens going off, everyone in the school exited the building to the rumble of fighter jets from the local 148th Air Force Unit practicing aerial maneuvers overhead. I have always loved seeing these aircrafts in Duluth, but in that moment it struck me cold to think of what they actually represent and how somewhere on campus, Anya was standing under this same sky. 

“This conflict has been going on my whole life,” she explained when I asked how she coped. “I’m used to it, this is normal for me now. This is normal.

Anya is aware that most people in the United States cannot understand what is happening in Ukraine, cannot fathom the concept of a war that continues even now as her family lives beside the wreckage. “Yesterday, in World History, we had a test, and one of the questions was, ‘Why are today’s teenagers in America so sad?’ I can say why Ukrainian teenagers are sad, but this question I do not know.” 

I see Anya laughing with her new friends walking through the school halls, but behind the young smile is a worried fear for her parents, grandparents, sister, brother, cousins, and friends in Ukraine. Only one of her childhood friends remains in her country; the rest have scattered throughout Europe in recent months—to London, Italy, France, Poland—anywhere they could safely go. “Only me and Rienat in the U.S.,” she says referring to her grade school friend from home who is also attending Marshall this year for the first time. “I started talking to Rienat, and he said he was at Marshall,” explains Anya when I ask how she ended up here, “Okay, I will come to you. I will go to Marshall, too.” 

American embassies in Ukraine have been closed due to the conflict with Russia, so Anya’s family searched the breadth of Europe for available visa appointments with an American Consulate. The first available was in Latvia, a country in Northern Europe by the Baltic Sea, where she then traveled with her mom. Once the visa was approved, she remained in Latvia until she could travel to the United States. Eventually, she was on a plane alone headed to Amsterdam, then on to Minneapolis where Rienat and his older brother met her at the airport. These kids share similar stories when it comes to parents who moved mountains to get their children to the United States, knowing an education here was a priceless ticket to security. 

“Goodbye, goodbye, good luck!” waved her mom as she watched her daughter leave to the other side of the world. What did that moment feel like? What emotions might one have in that flicker of time? “When I was sitting in the plane, I felt safe.”

Anya’s mother now wakes up at 5:00 a.m. every day in Kharkiv to connect with her daughter on the phone. Her parents will stay in their country—her father cannot leave due to a policy that requires men 60 years old and younger to fight. “If you are a man and the war is in your country, you need to go to the war.” I asked if her parents kept some form of protection at home, “No, no protection. My parents just live a normal life, just live with war, just going to work every day.” 

Just live with war.

I rolled this around in my head. Anya knows she’s had a challenging start to life, gravely abnormal by American standards. “The worst childhood ever. In my childhood is two wars in my country, and Covid—I’m just alone in the U.S. now. The worst, but also the best. Because of the war, I am here now; this was my dream all my life to study here.”

Her face begins to glow again, the aura of anger softens, and the delicate child reemerges. She explains that there is a big difference in attitude between people in Ukraine and those she has met here. “People are so kind, so cute, I love the people here. I love everything in the United States, because it’s the United States!” She continues on to name all of the blessings she has appreciated: the big beautiful school, an astounding level of high-quality education, wonderful teachers, her host family, the shockingly large size of food and beverages and clothing, clean drinkable tap water, the city of Duluth in all of its green beauty, the cinema, and countless people to speak English with. The list of gratitudes spills from her like a stream of genuine wonder.

Some of the statements she makes still stutter my breath, like how she doesn’t tell anyone her dreams. Isn’t it an extraordinary luxury to have future hopes and goals? To confidently believe you could expect to make them come true, and that you would have any resource needed to work toward them? Her English is excellent; she taught it to herself in the past year. Learning a language for your future is much different than studying a language for fun.

As for Anya’s long-term future, it is indeed uncertain. She will study at Marshall this year and next, and then will have one year to gain traction at a college in the United States before she will need to return to Europe in hopes of being able to renew her visa. She has no idea when she will see her family again, but for now, it’s a blessing to have Rienat and another Ukrainian student, Daria, here at Marshall—two friends with whom she can speak in her native tongue for a taste of home.

We end our conversation back on a lighthearted and beautiful topic: her passionate love for figure skating. Back home, she spent all of her free time out on the ice—now she spends her free time looking at the rinks in Duluth, waiting patiently for her skates to arrive with her winter clothing in a care package from home. Her smile is deep, authentic, and unencumbered by the devastation she has witnessed... she is still a teenager, by age and in heart.

I realize that Anya is not actually like a sapling developing in an impossible place… but rather, she is a stunning hardwood that will continue to grow tall and reach for great heights wherever she is planted.

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