Duluth international student raises awareness about war in her homeland of Ukraine
Fifteen-year-old Daria Devko, of Kyiv, said she believes that knowledge is power, and she hopes to educate other Duluthians about the war in Ukraine. She performs an original speech about why the war is relevant in the United States, and also helps teach refugees English in her spare time.
DULUTH — Fifteen-year-old Daria Devko was on the phone with her parents in Ukraine one morning before her classes at Marshall School started a few weeks ago. Mid-conversation, Daria heard gunshots and bombs. Her mother told her they had to run to a bomb shelter, and they would talk to her later.
“I knew that it was going on, but I hadn’t heard it,” Devko said of the bombing in her hometown of Kyiv, Ukraine. “When I heard this on a phone call, I didn’t know what to do next because school started in 15 minutes and I was supposed to go.”
Devko moved to Duluth from Kyiv in August to begin her sophomore year of high school at Marshall School, where she enrolled as an international student for her final three years of high school.
“Daria’s enrollment was super-exciting because she was the first student from Ukraine that we’ve had at Marshall in 16 years of the program, so we were just pumped,” said Christa Knudsen, director of enrollment at Marshall School. “Everything was really exciting, but yet standard, until all of this happened. And now nothing is standard.”
Devko’s parents and 9-year-old brother recently fled Ukraine and are staying with Devko’s aunt in Poland to escape the war. However, she has adult step-siblings and extended family who remain in Ukraine, including stepbrothers who are serving in the Ukrainian military. Her parents don’t speak English or Polish.
Devko knows many people who have left Ukraine who need English to communicate in the countries they’re seeking refuge in. Some of her friends have fled to Italy, Spain and France. Along with teachers from her school in Ukraine and some other students, she volunteers to teach Ukrainian refugees English in her free time — weekends and at 6 a.m. before school during the week, due to classes, homework and several extracurricular activities occupying her busy schedule.
“Sometimes it’s hard to balance with lessons and all this stuff, but for me, it’s important, so it’s all about priorities,” Devko said.
Devko said for the first few days after the war began Feb. 24, she was hardly able to function because of her shock and stress. She, her family and her friends didn’t believe Russia would really invade Ukraine, and the night before, her family was celebrating her father’s birthday. They awoke to bombs and rockets in a yellow sky. Devko learned of the attacks around 11 p.m. in Duluth, which was early morning in Kyiv, when Marshall House residence hall director Bettina Keppers broke the news to her.
In the past month, Devko has worked to raise awareness about the war and its relevance to the rest of the world, especially the United States. She wrote an original oratory speech that she performs at competitions about why the war in Ukraine matters, urging people to voice their opinions to the United States government to stop the war from escalating. She warns her audience that the longer the war goes on, the bigger the global consequences will be.
“If we cannot stop, it will lead us to World War III,” she said. “The faster we can stop this, the better, because the further this war goes, the more consequences we’ll experience here.”
The 10-minute speech, which she performs from memory, has to constantly be rewritten and updated to include the most recent data and information about the war. Her goal is to educate and inform as many people as possible.
Devko said that her speech has already gotten students from other schools talking, and she’s had many discussions with students and judges about what they can do to help Ukrainians. She recommends UNICEF USA, which is raising money to support children in Ukraine, and said many other organizations supporting Ukrainians, the military and refugees greatly benefit from donations.
“Those people who had everything in Ukraine, now they don’t have anything in one second,” Devko said. “Everything is closed and everyone lost everything.”
Devko said her family home was still standing in Kyiv when her family left the city, but the windows and many contents inside are broken because of its radius to the bombs. She faces uncertainty about when she will be able to reunite with her family at all, but said they are grateful she is safe in Duluth, away from the war.
If we cannot stop, it will lead us to World War III. The faster we can stop this, the better, because the further this war goes, the more consequences we’ll experience here.
“While you're here you’re in safety, but at the same time, mentally it’s just so tough that you can’t do anything,” Devko said. “Even though you’re not there, you’re feeling all of this — maybe sometimes even more because you’d rather be there with your family. But you’re feeling guilty because you’re in a safe place when all of them are not in a safe place.”
Now that Devko’s family has made it to Poland, she said they’re working on acclimating to their new environment and waiting to see what happens next. She still struggles with the time difference, because by the time she gets off school at 3 p.m., her family and friends in Europe are asleep and she has to try to pass the time without knowing what’s happening with them.
“You just don’t know what’s going to happen. Poland is still near Ukraine, and it’s really scary,” Devko said. “I can’t imagine how hard it is for them.”