The Day – “Local family opens home, hearts to Ukrainian student”

December 17, 2022

When the Zickmann family of Lebanon received an email that host families were being sought for students from Ukraine, they talked about the possibility.

Susan Zickmann recalled her husband, whose parents fled Nazi Germany for the United States during World War II, telling her that the family should volunteer. She knew he was right. “He was very sensitive to the plight of war and what that does to a country and all the families,” Zickmann said of her husband.

Steve and Susan Zickmann, parents to St. Bernard students Gabby, 17, and Zack, 15, this summer opened their home to 17-year-old Roman Shalyha. The Zickmanns and the Shalyhas met through a video call before Roman left his home. Shalyha’s 5-year-old brother even made an appearance when he ran into the frame a few times. “We met his family and they were all so nice and seemed kind of like us,” Zickmann said. “Just a close family.” Before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Roman was taking classes in a Wisconsin high school.

With the war looming large, Shalyha left his family and home country to continue his education in the United States. He stayed until late May, when he went to Ukraine to acquire a visa so he could return to the U.S. for the next school year. His father helped connect him with Saint Bernard School in Uncasville through an agency in Ukraine that helps students study abroad.

Once the school got word that Shalyha and other students were looking for help, St. Bernard reached out to Derby-based Apex International Education Partners. The school relies on AIEP to help make arrangements for all its international students. Shalyha and five other Ukrainian students arrived here this past summer to attend Saint Bernard. In the time since his arrival, Shalyha has been getting accustomed to his host family, a new school and a new way of life.

While host families who take in the students receive a monthly stipend of $500 funded by donations, AIEP is responsible for each student’s insurance costs and handling the logistics of “homestay,” which is a period abroad spent in the home of a local family. Saint Bernard waived all tuition costs and fees for the students — including textbooks and uniforms — and provides meal credits and a laptop to each student at no cost.

A connection through food

When Shalyha arrived in Lebanon, his new host siblings pulled out a yearbook and started giving him a rundown of the school. They showed them faces he should know, and some he should stay away from. The family has helped him pick up on American customs and expressions through “lively” dinner conversations. Shalyha lived in Kyiv, the capital city of Ukraine, so rural life was foreign to him.

Shalyha learned about the traditions of turkey and sweet potatoes, too, as they celebrated his first Thanksgiving together. “They were really friendly with me and they were helping me to kinda get into a new community here,” Shalyha said. Susan Zickmann explained that the three teenagers all have different personalities and are in different grades. This combination, inherently, creates challenges within the household, but Zickmann said the family has worked together to do what’s best for everyone.

Shalyha said he tried cross country as an extracurricular activity, but it wasn’t for him. Since then, he’s participated with the Math Honor Society and started the Ukrainian Culture Club, where he can talk about “Ukrainian culture, language and just everything about my country.”

Zickmann said Shalyha is “mature for his age,” which can sometimes make it difficult to connect with other kids. While his club activity at school helps, he and Zickmann have made a connection through food. The two grocery shop and cook meals together, such as fish and Ukrainian perogies, a time she enjoys sharing. The two have also worked together in a soup kitchen.

“He’s really great with adults, he’s great with kids too, but he has a very different reality than the kids here,” Zickmann said of Shalyha. “So I think it’s nice to have that time together. He’s been great.” He said he talks to his family, who have since moved out of Kyiv, by phone whenever they have access to electricity.

“Yeah, it’s pretty difficult, because [I miss] them,” Shalyha said. He said the time difference has made it difficult, especially when Russia first invaded Ukraine. Shalyha said he didn’t sleep much that night as he tried calling his family over and over. “I guess (it’s) the same (as) with COVID. You get used to it,” Shalyha said of the war. “You’re still being stressful and scared, but you’re hoping for better.”

Shalyha tries to focus on his studies the best he can, even as his first Christmas in the U.S. is drawing near. As an 11th grader in Ukraine, he would be in his last year of school. That is not the case in the U.S., so Shalyha is studying for an exam at the end of the year, which covers all his school subjects, to allow him to graduate. He said he has his sights set on medical school after high school, but is unsure if he’ll be able to return to the Ukraine by then.

Shalyha said the New Year celebration is larger than Christmas in his home country, but he’s already learning the ways of an American Christmas. He learned that Santa uses reindeer to travel from home to home. He got a chance to cut down a Christmas tree. He said the gift-giving tradition is not as grand in Ukraine as it is here.

Zickmann knows, though, that Shalyha is excited to have gifts with his name on them. “I have seen him kind of giddy with things in the advent calendar or looking at presents under the tree,” Zickmann said. “So it’s fun to see some levity in his life.”

Article Reference:

Kevin Arnold, The Day, New London, Conn.