Home away from home: Ukrainian exchange student to graduate from Hartselle High School
When Andrii Tymchenko walks across the stage at J.P. Cain stadium in May and becomes a Hartselle High School alumnus, there will be someone in the crowd who traveled nearly 9,000 miles to see him move his tassel.
His mother Ievgeniia (Jenny) Tymchenko is currently in Lithuania having fled her home after Russia began occupying parts of Ukraine.
Tymchenko made the journey to the United States to participate in a 10-month program through the Council of International Educational Exchange in Sept. 2021. It runs in the family; his sister Maryna, 21, is an exchange student in Germany heading to Spain later this year, having previously participated in a program in Denmark.
Tymchenko was born and raised in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Feb. 24, 2022, Russian forces invaded and occupied parts of Ukraine as airstrikes began in Tymchenko’s hometown and the country’s capital city, Kyiv.
“I was scared for absolutely everyone I know,” he said.
Tens of thousands of deaths on both sides and a refugee crisis that has not been seen since World War II was soon the result. Tymchenko’s mother and sister joined the roughly eight million Ukrainians who were displaced in their country by June. Tymchenko’s father is still in Kyiv.
With his family “scattered across the globe,” Tymchenko said he felt helpless in the early days of the escalation, often not being able to reach his anyone by phone.
Days after Kyiv was seized, Tymchenko’s mother and sister fled to an outlying village. Tymchenko said that proved to be a mistake.
“When you go out of the city that hasn’t been captured but is surrounded, there is often no internet connection, no electricity and limited food supply,” he said. “They heard shells being fired constantly.”
They tried to return to the city once only to be rerouted by Russian troops; Tymchenko said his family fled on foot through the forest toward safety.
When his family left again, seeking refuge outside of Ukraine – Tymchenko said it was just in time. Three days later, bombs leveled the village outside Kyiv leaving nothing behind.
“Sometimes I can’t get a call to them, I can’t connect,” he said, adding the pressure of wanting to help his family is a constant in his life.
While things for his family are safer now, Tymchenko said he fights feelings of guilt over not being able to help in any way.
At the end of his contract, the 18-year-old student was convinced to extend for another year and graduate from Hartselle High School.
“The original plan was of course to stay for a year for the experience and then go home,” he said. “There are no opportunities for me there.”
Tymchenko’s host parents are Byron and Mandy Dunkin. The couple have hosted one other international student from Germany.
Tymchenko was scheduled to return to Ukraine May 22, 2022 – almost two months to the day after the siege of his hometown began. His host parent Mandy Dunkin said she reached out to the exchange program coordinator about giving Tymchenko a place to stay if he wanted to remain in the United States for another year.
March 24, 2022, the Biden administration announced new temporary protected status to refugees due to ongoing conflict.
“It was an easy decision on our part,” Dunkin said. “He has a lot more opportunities here and if he went home, he would likely be drafted.
Once his contract was extended, Dunkin said she began thinking about everything Jenny has missed out on in her son’s life since he has been stateside. Determined to not let his high school graduation be another missed milestone, she put things in motion.
“Andrew had been mentioning that his mother has wanted to visit the United States for 20 years. So, I said ‘Why don’t see if she could come for graduation?’ I’ll pay for her plane ticket if she can get her visa to come.
Jenny received her visa March 22 – Tymchenko said while she will have to return to Lithuiana within 30 days or risk losing her refugee status – her brand-new visa is valid for a decade.
Dunkin said to get a visa, there are special forms, long waiting periods and various obstacles.
“All we need is a passport,” she said. “We don’t really think about challenges foreigners have to go through to visit our country.”
Dunkin said hosting Tymchenko has been a humbling and eye-opening experience.
“We get to see the American dream through his eyes, as we learn about his culture too,” she said. “I remember the first time I ever took Andrew to Wal-Mart and he was astonished at the massive store that has everything you need.”
Tymchenko said with an American high school degree, the future is bright.
After graduation he hopes to maintain temporary protected status as a refugee and attend college to study biotechnology or enter the military.
Tymchenko, fighting tears, said his parents’ dedication and love is what kept him going through the uncertain times.
“The only thing they care about is me and my sister,” he said. “They don’t care if anything happens to them – they just want to be safe with us. They said to me ‘We don’t have anything to lose besides you.’”