A troop of two: Ukrainian students connect at COC amid uncertainty of war

International Ukrainian student, Liia Opanasiuk, center, joins, from left, Gary Horton College of the Canyons Chancellor's Circle Member, College of the Canyons Chancellor Dr. Dianne G. Van Hook, Carrie Horton - Landscape Development Inc. and Jia-Yi Cheng-Levine, Dean, International Affairs & Global Engagement, College of the Canyons meet for lunch at the Institute for Culinary Education building at College of the Canyon in Valencia on Tuesday, 051722. Dan Watson/The Signal

By Sarah Sikandar 

Signal Staff Writer  

When Liia Opanasiuk visited her family and friends in her hometown Kyiv, Ukraine, in the winter of 2021, little did she know that upon her return to Santa Clarita in February this year – where she goes to College of the Canyons as a student in the theater department – Kyiv would be all over the news. 

The 19-year-old’s family finally managed to escape to Germany in the beginning of March. But like millions of refugees from Ukraine, it was anything but a smooth journey.  

“It was just incredibly painful. The people I love the most were in danger. Especially them trying to get out, because they had to drive for about four days to reach the borders, staying in shelters in different cities, while hearing about shootings. It was the time when people were getting shot in their cars.” 

Apart from her parents, she was praying for the safety of her siblings, her friends, her favorite babysitter who took care of her since she was 3, and grandparents, who had witnessed the horrors of World War II. All this, while she was trying to focus on her studies here in Santa Clarita, watching the war unfold on the news. “Honestly there are no words to describe.”  

At one point, she wasn’t sleeping, incessantly following news online and trying to communicate with her family, praying for their safety.  

“I was online because of the different timelines. I was just texting my family every five minutes.” 

Opanasiuk met the only other Ukranian student at COC, Zhanna Goncharova, and they quickly became friends. Goncharova, 22, went back home when the pandemic started, and classes switched online. A filmmaking major, she spent a stressful year in Ukraine, not knowing what to expect on the other side of the pandemic. Now that she’s back, the war has pushed all other worries to the side and her only concern remains the safety of her family. 

“One year ago, nobody knew what our flag looks like. Now, everyone is familiar with it,” she said.  

Her grandparents decided not to leave their homes despite the heavy shelling in their area. “Only recently there were seven missile strikes where they live. And it’s still going on.” 

COC Chancellor Dianne Van Hook said she appreciated the two students’ grit in the face of the circumstances.  

“It takes a lot of courage to go into any new place, to start a new school, even if it’s just 5 miles away, or 15 miles away. But to move all the way around the world and start anew, when everything is so different, culturally, politically, socially, it takes a lot of courage.” 

She said that, given how quickly the situation changes in Ukraine, it’s hard to understand how lonely they must feel, and how difficult it must be for them to focus on their education. 

“I have a great sense of admiration for them,” Van Hook said. “We went through it with the pandemic, but at least we had our homes and our families around us, something they don’t have.”  

Gary Horton, a local business owner and a member of the college’s foundation board, helped sponsor the two students’ stay in the United States.  

Horton, who lived in Finland when he was the same age as Opanasiuk and Goncharova, said he understands the challenges of living in a new country, learning a new language and feeling separated and alone, especially when their parents are trying to move to safety.  

“I have a lot of empathy and understanding for how they must feel,” Horton said. “If Ukraine remains a sovereign country, they can still go back. But if the outcome of the war isn’t favorable, their lives are in a flux and they’re trying to make the most of it right now.”   

Opanasiuk is immensely proud of where she comes from. “I know that Ukraine is going to grow. It’s going to be one of the most wonderful countries in the world.” 

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