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Ukrainian student grateful for support of her American family, friends

by Judith Hruz


At any other time, Dasha Skochenko would be having the time of her life as a foreign exchange student in the United States, a dream she has had since she was in third grade.

But this is not like any other time.

Dasha, 16, is from Ukraine, and her family lives in the northeast area of the country, where sirens blare every day in anticipation of Russian bombs or artillery fire.

“Nobody knows when the planes fly overhead what will happen,” she said.

Thankfully, she can reach her parents most days by phone or over the Internet, but not every day.

Her parents, like so many thousands of people in Ukraine, stay indoors, often in the basement of buildings. They do not work or go to school.

Her mother, she said, does not want to leave the country because she wants to stay with her father, who is required to stay and fight if needed.

On Feb. 21, Russia recognized the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, which broke away from Ukraine in 2014, as sovereign nations. Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops in to “keep the peace.”

On Feb. 24, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, beginning in the eastern Ukrainian territory of Donbas.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared martial law in Ukraine and officially broke diplomatic ties with Russia. Putin’s actions were condemned across the world and within Russia.

Exactly one month after Russian troops invade Ukraine on Feb. 24, Dasha was still in shock at the war in her homeland – a war she has not seen with her own eyes because she has been in Montgomery County since late summer.

“It is hard to understand it is happening,” Dasha said of the war.


Life in America


Her American family — “parents” Chris and Susan Milner of Sandy Spring and one “sister” and two “brothers” — have created a warm and loving environment for Dasha, with as many “normal” adventures an exchange student, especially one as warm and loving as Dasha, should have.

Dasha arrived in August and attends school at Sherwood High School, where she is part of the junior class.

Going to school in the United States is much different than in Ukraine, where there is no opportunity to choose subjects you want to study.

“There are more ways to express your interests here,” she said.

Dasha is studying business and learning much more about Democracy. She is taking gymnastics – “something I never tried,” she laughed — and participated in the recent Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival, perhaps the highlight of her time at Sherwood. She sang back-up in seven numbers, joining her host sister in several of them.

“It was a wonderful experience for her,” Susan Milner said.

School in Ukraine is also different in that all grades — first through 11th — are in the same building, and grade 11 is the last year of school before going to university.

She was also surprised at how far apart the community is here.

“In Ukraine, we walk everywhere. Most people walk to school, too,” Dasha said. “Transportation is much more difficult here.”

Celebrating Christmas with the Milners was a special time for Dasha, she said.

In Ukraine, New Year is much more festive, while Christmas is a smaller dinner with family.

“Christmas here was so much more lively,” Dasha said. “I had such a good time. We became much closer.”

Dasha has learned to add more vegetables to her diet in the seven months she has lived with the Milner family.

“In Ukraine, we eat potatoes and meat,” she said.

“But here, vegetables. I was not so sure about the vegetables,” she laughed.

Susan Milner laughed, too. “It took her a while to get used to them.”


What a year it has been


In so many ways – school, holidays, food, family – life in Sandy Spring has been the wonderful experience Dasha had hoped to have as a foreign exchange student ever since she was that little girl.

“I thought it would be exciting to do,” she said. “I thought I would learn and experience so much. And I am.”

A certain strength, great humor, and immense warmth and kindness are evident in Dasha.

But barely a moment of any day goes by that she is not thinking of her family and her homeland.

She has kept in touch, as much as possible, with other Ukrainian people or Ukrainian-Americans in Montgomery County.

And her classmates and teachers at Sherwood ask her daily how she is doing as Ukraine continues to defend its land.

Ukraine and Russia were once united under the Soviet Union, but shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian people voted to become a sovereign nation and became independent on Dec. 1, 1991.

Ukraine is the second-largest country in Europe by land mass – second only to Russia.

Dasha is proud of her countrymen and countrywomen.

“I am so proud of them, the way they have defended our country,” she said.

“But I am also proud of everyone here,” she said, referring to Americans. “Even here, everyone is doing what they can to help.”


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