Former Webb City Exchange Student Remains Ukrainian Refugee in Poland | Local News

Over the past six months, while living as a refugee in a foreign land, Sofiya Bezpala has tapped into a vein of undiscovered love and warmth for her native Ukraine.

“With each passing month of war, I just have this (growing) love for my country,” she said.

In 2017, when Bezpala, now 21, spent a year living with Amy and Kurt Krtek of Oronogo and attending Webb City High School as part of the Future Leaders Exchange Program, she often talked about traveling and living in places far from each other. side of the globe. It was important to her.

But now?

“The only place I want to travel is at home,” she told The Globe during a recent Zoom interview from where she lives in central Europe, her voice cracking. “One thing I know for sure is that if I choose a place to settle down, it will be my home. I want to live here; I want people to understand how proud I am to be surrounded by (my) people. I am Ukrainian in every molecule of my blood, from the top of my head to my toes.

Although her home country is very close, the fighting still raging in the northern, eastern and southern parts presents too much danger for her or her parents to return there permanently.

“I want to get closer to home, but I can’t,” she said. “I now know how much freedom costs.”

A refugee in Poland

Bezpala and his parents were forced to flee their hometown of Kharkiv in March after their country was invaded in February by forces led by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Their city of 1.4 million has become a key battleground due to its proximity to the Russian border, just 30 miles away.

After hiding for six days inside the city – occasionally encountering artillery barrages and missile strikes – the family spent another six days crossing the width of Ukraine, which is roughly the size of Texas.

Arriving in Poland, they were among the 12 million Ukrainian citizens who fled their homes following the Russian invasion. Days after moving into a refugee home in Warsaw, their lives were suddenly filled with “unknowns and uncertainties” for the foreseeable future, Bezpala said.

But then America came calling.

During her year of living with the Krtek family, Amy Krtek and Bezpala formed a special mother-daughter bond that has only grown stronger over the past six months. Bezpala proudly calls Krtek her “second mother” or “American mom.”

It was Krtek who, working diligently from his home in Oronogo, raised over $5,000 for Bezpala and his parents, transferring the money directly to Poland.

“Sofia is in a NATO country; she is safe,” Krtek said during the Zoom meeting. “One of these days, I can see her again. It’s just heartbreaking, here on my side, because I can’t be there with her. She’s going through so much trauma right now, and I just wish I could give her a hug.

Bezpala said she couldn’t imagine where she and her family could be now without the fundraising help of the Krteks.

“It would still be just as difficult. We were all lost here, my family, myself. This support has kept us alive and afloat,” she said. “I can’t imagine my life without my American family. This year-long trip (to southwest Missouri) just changed my life tremendously. America has come to us again.”

Grounded and centered

Despite her refugee status, Bezpala is trying to rebuild herself, little by little, one day at a time.

“Right now I would say things are a bit easier” than they were when they arrived in Poland, Bezpala said.

She lived with her parents for four months, mostly in a private apartment made available to them by the Polish government, before she was able to move out on her own. She now has a boyfriend, Max, who is from the same Kharkiv district where she lived before the Russian invasion. Because he can work remotely, they were able to travel outside of Poland and they expect to be in Croatia until the end of October.

Because Bezpala is fluent in Polish, English and Russian, she spent several days in eastern Poland, volunteering to help displaced refugees from her country find temporary shelter.

” I like to help ; I love volunteering,” she said.

On several occasions, Bezpala ventured across the border for brief visits inside Ukraine, transferring donated medical supplies from Poland to Ukrainian soldiers and medical officials stationed in Lviv. Round trip, it takes him about 30 hours to refuel.

Krtek said she was nervous every time Bezpala visited the war-torn country. On the other hand, “I’m so proud of her because she needed all this help but she was always helping others,” she said. “Here she is, a refugee living in another country, and she’s spent so much time and energy helping others, raising funds and raising awareness. I just think that’s great.

Bezpala continues to teach basic English to Ukrainian refugees at a Polish school. In her spare time, she is also learning two new languages: Spanish and Turkish.

“I love learning languages; it’s my passion and it makes me extremely happy,” she said.

She and Krtek often converse in Spanish.

“I love his positive attitude,” Krtek said. “I want everyone to be like her.”

‘I’m so lucky’

Despite the upheaval, Bezpala said she had little to complain about after helping so many of her fellow refugees and listening to their stories.

“I try to think about the things that are important to me – the people I’ve been separated from and want to hug right now, the war veterans I worked with who are no longer with us “, she said. “I don’t want to swear now but…I’m so lucky. Look, I’ve got my four limbs. I’ve got everything I could ask for – everything. There’s nothing else I need. need apart from my friends, the ability to volunteer and help, and that’s it.

She prays for the day when Russian forces leave and every displaced Ukrainian can return home.

“Ukrainians are famous for their holidays, so I don’t know how many days we will celebrate ‘after the war is over,’ but it will be a big day,” she said. Until that happens, “I hope and pray every day that it will happen soon and that Ukraine will finally be free.”

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