Every 'I love you' means more

Every 'I love you' means more

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In many ways Anastasia Didenko is a typical teenager. She is a cheerleader, she listens to Lana del Rey and her favorite food is chocolate ice cream. She even participated in Academic Challenge last fall.

What’s not typical about Didenko is the situation in which she finds herself, especially as a 17-year-old. Didenko came from Ukraine to the U.S. as an exchange student in September 2021. She attends Tuscarawas Central Catholic High School and lives in Bolivar with her host parents, Heather Jones and Bobby Eddy.

Didenko needs every ounce of her seemingly unbreakable spirit right now as she remains in the U.S. while her family is nearly 6,000 miles away. She does not know if she will be able to go home in late May as she was supposed to.

Her mother Julia, 12-year-old sister Veronika and 4-year-old Pomeranian dog Genny safely escaped to Poland early in the war. However, Didenko’s father Dmydro must remain at home to fight if any of the battles come close to her hometown of Novomoskovsk, a city of around 70,000 people in Eastern Ukraine.

Didenko came to the U.S. as an exchange student because she not only wanted to see America, but also because she wanted to teach others about Ukraine and its culture.

“Since everything that’s happened, people are more educated,” she said. “Before that, people didn't really even know where Ukraine is — that it's not a part of Russia or anything. It’s not, and it will never be.”

Didenko recalled the night she learned the country was under attack. “I was checking my phone for news and messages when I first learned that explosions had been heard,” she said. “I didn't believe it. The first time I called my dad, he said, ‘Hey, it's fine. We were sleeping. Nothing happened. No one heard anything. Go to bed.’ But then about 30 minutes later, they heard it too.”

Complicating matters, Didenko’s mother was in a different city from her father and sister. “I was so worried that something would happen to them,” she said. “The first week was the worst. I didn't want to do anything. I didn't sleep. I didn't want to eat.”

Didenko reached out to her classmates, teachers and the administration at Central Catholic for support. “I went to school, and I was still in this state of mind where I'm lost. I felt helpless, but I decided I need to do something. So I went to my principal, and then I talked to students and we started a fundraiser,” she said.

Taking action helps

Didenko said taking action is what helps her deal with the unimaginable. “I can't just sit and cry, or nothing would change,” she said.

The teenager is simultaneously keeping up with school work, school activities, volunteering in Zoar and dealing with the horror of war.

“I'm still keeping up with what’s going on, but I mean I have a life too," she said. "It was hard to understand that I can't just sit and read the news all the time and not be here. I need to be here too, so I can do more and help more than if I would just sit and be upset.”

Jones said she and Eddy try their best to help Didenko. “Sometimes we don't know everything that's bothering her, so we don't know what to do,” she said. “We’ve obviously never been in this situation before.”

The couple have not yet raised children of their own, let alone a teenager whose country is at war. Jones said the school has been incredibly supportive, and they are grateful.

“It has to be so hard to be away from your parents, even under normal circumstances,” Jones said. “We try to stay active. We had a campfire and made s’mores, went sled riding, we watch movies, and right now we’re working on a huge puzzle of Hogwarts.”

What comes next

Didenko was scheduled to return to Ukraine at the end of May. Now everything is up in the air. “Things change every 15 minutes,” she said.

She is likely to be able to graduate high school, although at one point that was even in question. Her studies here do not count toward her graduation in Ukraine, so she is simultaneously doing her senior year of Ukrainian school online.

Hard work and involvement with other activities help, she said. Still, it hurts her to see her homeland being attacked. “It's just terrible,” she said. “It's not just a war; it's genocide.”

When asked what Ukraine is like during peaceful times, Didenko said, “Honestly, I love my country, and I love our people. Everyone is just so sincere and open. It feels so warm. No matter to what city you go, people will be happy to see you. People will welcome you. We have a very deep history. It's very bloody. We have been fighting for independence for centuries.”

Every “I love you”

Didenko penned an essay describing her experience. In it she said, “Every ‘I love you’ means more than it has ever meant before. I look forward to the day when my friends no longer have to text me to let me know they are still alive or my parents have to hang up because the air raid sirens threaten another bombing.”

Didenko is begging Americans not to forget about the war. “People are forgetting about it, and I don't want this to happen because it's still going on and it's getting worse. I see the horrors and think, ‘It could be me or one of my friends.’ And it has been.”

Didenko said an entire family of one of her classmates was killed, and she has lost touch with many others. “I don’t know what has happened to them,” she said. “I just want people to know what is really going on. I'm happy that I'm here right now so people can see through my perspective and I can share what I think and what is actually going on.”

In the meantime Didenko listens to songs by her favorite Ukrainian artist, Luna. “I really liked her music for quite a long time,” she said. “Right now I like her even more because of her position on the war. She does the right thing, and she has beautiful music.”

How to help

Monetary donations can be dropped off at the Central Catholic High School office or at Lock 7 Hair Studio in Bolivar. Contributions also can be mailed to the salon at 10880 state Route 212 NE with checks made payable to Lock 7 Hair Studio.

“Money is the best thing right now, as it is too expensive to send material items,” said Didenko, who has raised about $5,000 so far. “Every dollar can help right now.”

“I do not know when this will be over,” Didenko said in her essay. “I do not know when I will hug my mom — I do not know if my conversation with my dad is the last one because he so courageously is protecting my home. I do not know what will happen in the next 15 minutes, but I know that no matter what, I will keep moving and stay strong — for my dad, my mom and my country. I know I will fight until the end, no matter how hurt or powerless I feel. This is who I am.”

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