Raygun and exchange students in Iowa raise funds for a Ukrainian hospital

Imagine you’re a 15-year-old high school student in Eastern Europe, living a relatively carefree life and learning about American culture from Netflix shows like “Riverdale.” You learn that you have won a competitive scholarship through the U.S. State Department’s Future Leaders Exchange Program, or FLEX, which will take you to America for a year to live and study. A host family in Waukee, Iowa has chosen you to live with them while you attend Waukee High School.

Your classmates back home, whose dreams of America were also shaped in large part by TV deals, tell you how cool it is, how lucky you are. Your close friends and family are thrilled for you.

Where you are headed, they will know little about your hometown of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, or the education system, culture or language. But the FLEX program is for you to help educate them, just as Americans will educate you about their world.

It was in this context that Liza, whose full name is Yelyzaveta Yaryshkina, arrived in Iowa on September 9, wide-eyed and ready to go. Despite all the newness, she found the transition easy.

“School is 100% different,” she said. Switching from the metric system to the standard measurement system was a challenge, the absence of a school dress code a relief. Instead of 18 different classes organized in 45-minute sessions, here she has four classes of an hour and a half a day each.

Russian Invasion Brings Horrific Pictures, Scares Mom And Brother Away

But Liza could not have imagined that in five months her homeland would be battered by Russian forces, its buildings collapsing under airstrikes on live television, pregnant women giving birth in bomb shelters and young , including his friends, fleeing the country with their mothers. for survival.

His own 9-year-old brother fled with their mother, a business owner, to Spain, where they are staying with friends. But since the men are not allowed to leave the country, Liza’s father, who has a business selling cars, remains confined to their building, interacting only with its other residents.

It’s impossible for events back home not to worry Liza. Ukraine has also become the major concern of the world.

“At first, I was trying not to stress too much,” she said.

But she fears, especially for her father. “He can’t leave his home and he can’t leave the country,” she said. “I call him very often so we talk a lot so he won’t be so sad.”

Raygun in Des Moines produces T-shirts for sale to raise relief funds in Ukraine;  local students help.

It’s a lot for a child to bear so far.

Donetsk is part of what Russians call the Donetsk People’s Republic, whose government was installed by Russia in 2014. But Ukraine considered it temporarily occupied Ukrainian territory. One of Russia’s first acts before sending troops in February was to officially recognize the Donetsk Republic and the Luhansk Republic, also in eastern Ukraine, as independent states.

Keeping calm would probably have been more difficult for Liza if her foster family hadn’t been so caring, if they hadn’t hugged her and reassured her, everything would be fine. If her drama teacher hadn’t given her a knitted blanket in the colors of the Ukrainian flag, and if other teachers and classmates, other Des Moines-area international students, and a local business hadn’t been so caring and supportive.

“At this point…she is our child and she will always be our child wherever she is,” her foster mom, Alli Johnson, said. “It’s like watching your child go through everything you can’t fix. You reassure him that he’s safe and the people he loves are safe, and that this family in Iowa is there if the other family needs anything.”

Liza, whose full name is Yelyzaveta Yaryshkina, and her family take a photo in kyiv, Ukraine, in 2020.

“Everyone takes really good care of me here,” Liza said. “Everyone is, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry.’ Americans, they’re so nice.”

Exchange students in Iowa help raise funds for Kyiv hospital

Besides school, tennis and the Future Business Leaders of America Club, she has found a place to devote her energy to Ukraine, according to Johnson. She launched a fundraising campaign with two other international students, Aisha Kademova from Kazakhstan, also in Waukee, and Bakai Tolundu from Kyrgyzstan, in Des Moines Roosevelt. They raise funds for a maternity hospital in kyiv. It happens to be the one where the obstetrician who gave birth to Liza now practices. Liza’s father suggested it.

“Their furniture and windows are broken,” Liza said. “They can’t get enough because of the crisis and a lot of people aren’t working. They really need the money.”

I exchanged a few messages with this doctor early last week after Liza put us in touch. We were planning to talk when another round of attacks unleashed on kyiv, and I haven’t heard from her since. That’s how things are flowing in Ukraine these days.

A previous statement from the Livoberezhnyi Maternity Hospital in Kyiv said the bombardment of the city had made “the logistics of medical and material support extremely complicated. Children and mothers are cared for in bomb shelters or metro stations”. .

BBC News reported earlier this month the death of a pregnant woman and her baby following an airstrike in Mariupol, a port city that is part of the Donetsk regional administration.

Raygun takes rare step outside the Midwest for student fundraiser

The three students’ efforts to help Ukraine brought them into contact with Mike Draper, the owner of Raygun, who helped them design, print and distribute Ukrainian-themed t-shirts to sell. He does all the printing at cost and has set up and runs an online store for Students United for Ukraine: https://www.rayguncustom.com/collections/students-united-for-ukraine.

Draper said Raygun did little to no fundraising related to anything not based in the Midwest. “But this conflict looks like a global situation, good versus evil,” he said. “It’s hard to stay away and just watch.”

Said Liza of Draper, “He’s so sweet. Always smiling, like the sun.”

“Raising awareness and helping the people of Ukraine is the goal of our project,” Bakai, a Roosevelt student, wrote in an email of his involvement. “Right now we are trying to plan a table for us in the church and at one of the upcoming events in central Iowa. The answers are always different, some organizations can help us, some can’t. , but everyone is very supportive.”

The three students go door-to-door with the t-shirts and also sell them at school, with permission, during lunchtime. A few days ago, Liza and Aisha went door-to-door in Waukee, dragging a wagonload of them. In five hours, they earned $600.

Liza, who initially observed that few people here knew her homeland, said everyone they spoke to that day knew about the war with Ukraine. His perceptions of Iowa had been equally limited. “I knew it was, like, fields and stuff,” she told me.

Now she finds it to be also full of heart.

Those who could afford to buy T-shirts and others gave what they could, “because they really wanted to be a part of it.” By the middle of the week, $1,200 had been raised towards their goal of $3,000.

One day, when she thinks back to her 15th year, Liza will probably see her as one of her most formative. She couldn’t have imagined that the year she left home for real without her family would bring her face to face with so much more than the teenage angst of TV fare.

Nor could she have imagined that her relationship with America and the Americans would play such a crucial role in this time, providing security and a way to reach her people back home.

His exchange program officially ends in June, but as of now, it’s unclear what might happen next.

Liza turns 16 on April 3 but feels she has recently crossed a threshold.

“I feel like it makes me an adult,” she mused. “You know what I mean?”

One can only imagine.

To contribute

To donate directly to the Livoberezhnyi Maternity Hospital in kyiv, go to https://pb6.com.ua/partners.

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