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Ukrainian teen who fled to Mass. wants to return home as a post-war leader06:54
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Svitlana Pokliatska talks with Assistant Superintendent Meg Dussault during a class break at Sharon High School. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Svitlana Pokliatska talks with Assistant Superintendent Meg Dussault during a class break at Sharon High School. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Early this year, Svitlana Pokliatska was enjoying life in her native Ukraine. She had pink- and green-streaked hair and lots of friends. She was taking a gap year after high school at the Kharkiv branch of a nationwide academy, studying leadership.

After the Russian invasion in late February, Pokliatska and her classmates volunteered to weave camouflage nets the Ukrainian military uses to hide equipment.

By March, her parents felt life was getting too dangerous. So, Pokliatska, her mother and younger brother fled to Massachusetts. They moved into her uncle's house in the town of Sharon. They're among at least 400 Ukrainians who've come to Massachusetts since the war started, according to resettlement agencies around the state that are assisting them.

Immediately after arriving, Pokliatska noticed the the contrast between life here and in Ukraine.

"When you move from a place where people are going with guns on the streets ... you can trust no one," she said. "And then you move here and you see a lot of people smiling."

That includes people at Sharon High School, where Pokliatska takes classes. Kids have put yellow and blue posters supporting Ukraine in school windows.

A poster in a hallway at Sharon High School asks students to donate funds in support of Ukrainian children. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
A poster in a hallway at Sharon High School asks students to donate funds in support of Ukrainian children. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Assistant Superintendent Meg Dussault described 18-year-old Pokliatska as sophisticated and confident — but "still a kid," despite the upheaval she's experienced.

"I think that we have an image of war ... We think of the travesty and the hurt and all of these things. And then you see [her] pink phone case and little rainbow barrettes, and ... in spite of everything ... the war hasn't robbed her of that," Dussault said.

But Pokliatska carries the war with her. She checks in with her friends in Ukraine all the time, and that can stir up strong emotions.

"Actually ... I felt really guilty that I'm here and not there," she said. "When I saw the pictures of Kharkiv, where I were living for a lot of months, I couldn't believe it's true ... Kharkiv is [widely damaged] ... so, it's very painful."

Since Pokliatska already got her diploma in Ukraine, she's at Sharon High for one main reason: to improve her English. She gets help from teacher Corrina Kerr, who teaches English language learners at the school.

Pokliatska works with teacher Corrina Kerr in English learners class at Sharon High School. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Pokliatska works with teacher Corrina Kerr in English learners class at Sharon High School. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

On a recent day, Kerr had Pokliatska read a passage about the history of the Brooklyn Bridge out loud while correcting spelling and grammar mistakes in it. The two also discussed some nuances of English, such as the difference between making a fuss and making a scene.

Kerr has taught English to students who've come from other places in turmoil, including Haiti. Some, like Pokliatska, talk freely about what they've endured. Others don't.

"I ... basically leave it up to the student, what they would like to share," Kerr said. "A third-grader might not fully conceptualize war, and it's in some ways, from a teacher perspective, easier to talk to them about it. But when an older student kind of knows so much about the political situation and the horrors of war, it's just a much more difficult conversation. It's much more important to me to be respectful of people's stories and their privacy."

Some students at Sharon High, including Tiago Rodriguez, are also trying to be sensitive about Pokliatska having fled a war.

"I was really worried, cuz I was like — Oh God, the last thing I want is for her to just to try and live her life and everyone's like, 'So sis, how's Ukraine?' " Rodriguez said. "But from what I've seen, that's not what's happened ... It's just like, 'What kind of food do you like, what are you into, tell me your music' — interpersonal things that you would ask other people just in general."

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Pokliatska walks with schoolmate Tiago Rodriguez between classes. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Pokliatska walks with schoolmate Tiago Rodriguez between classes. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Seniors Alice Zaniewski and Amelia Dasari have become Pokliatska's friends and tour guides. The pair, almost in unison, rattled off some of the destinations they’ve hit so far.

"Shaw's — very exciting — Macy's, Red Lentil ... Just hidden gems in the town."

Pokliatska is happy for the diversions. But she's clear she's on a mission in this country; She wants to keep Ukraine in the public eye. One way to do that is to talk to the media, she said.

"I believe that media noise will help hold public attention to the situation. And if public attention is held, then states or governments of different countries [will really try] to help," she said. "All my plans [for the] future are canceled by the circumstances. And now I need to adapt and ... plan from now what can I do, and where can I be useful."

The devastation of the war has sealed her sense of purpose. She wants to return home and become a leader in a free, independent Ukraine.

"In every field, there needs a leader ... for a leadership you need a vision, and for vision you need to to be competent in your field," she said. "I hope I will be that person who could give the example and vision to others."

To help her get to that point, she's applying to colleges in the U.S. and Europe. But first, she'll finish her short semester at Sharon High, complete with a prom.

This segment aired on May 18, 2022.

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