As Russian troops continued to invade their country, 18 Ukrainian high school students arrived in the Twin Cities this week to begin a five-week leadership development program that could one day help them rebuild their war-torn nation.
At a Roseville Area Optimists Club luncheon Friday, where the group made their first public appearance in Minnesota, 16-year-old Oleksandra “Sasha” Masokha of Boryspil said she hopes the trip, sponsored by Global Synergy Group, based in St. Louis Park, will “advance my organizational skills, improve my level of English and have many enjoyable experiences.”
For Oksana “Ksyusha” Lohvineko, 16, from Kharkiv, the program is a chance to get away from the constant threats to the life and safety of her family and friends.
“The war was right there,” she said of her hometown. “It affected my family a lot.”
She now lives with a brother in Lviv while her mother and father stay in Kharkiv. Some residents of this city were killed, she said, while others lost their homes and moved to other cities and countries.
“That’s why we appreciate any help; we are very grateful for that,” Lohvineko said.
But she is eager to learn more about US government, education, organizations and businesses “so she can start new projects and share experiences with classmates and friends.” It’s gonna be fun.”
Founded in 2012, the Global Synergy Group is a nonprofit organization that promotes civic and cultural exchange between American organizations and other nations. It has sponsored five youth and adult exchanges. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, it has focused on providing humanitarian aid to that country.
The goal of the current youth program is to develop leaders who “can take Ukraine to the next level,” program co-founder Irina Fursman said over lunch. She hopes the students will help shape “what a new democracy will look like”.
Denys Lakyziuk, 16, from Boryspil is already a leader at home, where he is vice-president of a student group. But he wants to develop new skills and new programs “with the help of the experience and knowledge acquired” through travel.
It’s a big change from his experience at the start of the war, he says, when “I helped dig trenches and build shelters and shelters” for Ukrainian soldiers.
During their first week in Minnesota, Fursman said, the students, ages 13 to 18, will be introduced to the state’s education systems. Week two will focus on how local governments are working with help from officials in Hopkins, Bloomington and Minneapolis.
Then they will study cultural institutions, including Native American history and immigrant experiences in the state. Next, they will explore state voluntary services. And finally, they’ll learn about business and entrepreneurship with leaders from some of the state’s largest companies.
Plus, the group will get a taste of Minnesota culture by attending the State Fair and the Vikings and Twins games. Students stay with host families while in Minnesota.
Bill Salisbury is a member of the Roseville Area Optimists Club and was given permission by an editor to report on the Ukrainian student visit.