'Proud to be Ukrainian': Unrest is never far away for exchange student in Cape Elizabeth
CAPE ELIZABETH — When exchange student Karolina Duchkova began the year at Cape Elizabeth High School, "Where is Ukraine?" was a frequent question she had to answer.
Half a year later, her country, embroiled in a state of revolution and international crisis, has the attention of the world.
Duchkova, 17, has monitored the turmoil at every step: The government's decision in November to strengthen ties with Russia and not the European Union; the violence at protests in Kiev's Independence Square; the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych, and now the Russian occupation of Crimea.
She will give a presentation titled "Ukraine: The Inside Story" on Thursday, March 20, at 6:30 p.m. at Thomas Memorial Library. She plans to address the country's culture, ethnicities, politics and economics, as well as today's conflict.
Duchkova grew up in Skvyra, a town of 18,000, 90 minutes from the capital. She lived through the Orange Revolution as an 8-year-old. Her mother teaches embroidery, and her father coaches physical education and karate.
Duchkova this week said she has grown comfortable in America. She's enjoyed her government class, socializing, and traveling to New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia.
But her mind is never far from the upheaval in her homeland. Duchkova, who is fluent in Ukrainian, Russian and English, scours the net for news reports and commentary in all three languages.
"It’s very important to compare them and try to filter the information," she said.
Skype chats with her mother and friends offer precious insights into everyday life in a time of immense change.
Initially, she figured her friends and family from her small hometown would be largely unaffected, but she has friends who were injured at protests.
Her father helped pull down one of the dozens of Vladimir Lenin statues that have been toppled across the country.
"The monuments of Lenin we have in every single town and village, they symbolize the Soviet Union," Duchkova said. "People are trying to get rid of the socialist, Communist mindset from the past of their country. So I am very proud of my dad that he took part in such a thing."
Duchkova hopes for a developed, independent Ukraine, one that's aligned with the European Union, but above all is free to make its own political and economic decisions. She discusses the country's "current situation," as she calls it, with the confidence and maturity of someone twice her age.
Still, the almost surreal circumstances of Duchkova's year – going abroad for the first time just before her country erupts into political fervor and revolution – are enough to give anyone pause.
Duchkova said she feels fortunate to be avoiding the violence, but she knows she's missing an important, perhaps transformational moment in Ukraine's history. With the uncertainty of what's to come, and the twists the saga seems to take every day, she has a lot to think about.
"Right now I’m not sure what the future of my country will be," she said. "People are scared, but they are very ready (to take) any action to save the country and the unity of Ukraine.
"It’s a little bit hard to watch it from a distance," she said. "But I don’t really know what I would do if I was in Ukraine. Probably, I would protest as well.”
Duchkova will return this summer to a different Ukraine from the one she left. She knows it's impossible to predict what her life will be like in a year or two, but she wants to return to the U.S. for college to study international affairs. She doesn't ever see herself settling down in Ukraine.
But she knows it will always be a part of her.
"I can say I am very proud to be Ukrainian," Duchkova said. "Ukraine has a very heroic history. It never mattered that our country only gained independence in 1991. Ukrainian people preserve their traditions. There are a lot of wonderful and amazing aspects of Ukrainian culture that I'd love to share with my children. I think it’s very important to share the culture and keep the traditions alive."