Stranded by War: A Ukrainian foreign exchange student's story

Ukrainian foreign exchange student Dmytro Davydenko narrowly escaped the ravages of war when he left his home country for the prairies of western North Dakota and Beach High School. This is the story of a teenager in exile, and the desperate attempt to bring his mother to the United States.

Dima and Jill
Dmytro Davydenko and Jill Schatz are making the most of their unexpected extra time together.
Ashley Koffler / The Dickinson Press

BEACH, N.D. — With an ever present smile and an air of optimism, you’d never know Dmytro Davydenko narrowly escaped the ravages of war. When the 17-year-old arrived in the United States in August of 2021, he had planned to stay one year as a foreign exchange student, learn the American ways and enjoy the peaceful tranquility of rural North Dakota life.

In the early morning hours of Feb. 24, Russia launched a full scale invasion of Ukraine in what would prove to be a major escalation of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War. Cut off from his homeland and fearful of the minute by minute update of Russian advances in his homeland, the Beach High School senior was left with no solid answers as to how long, or if ever, he’d return to his home country.

Davydenko, who goes by Dima, shared with The Dickinson Press his relief to be safe from the destruction his family has been through, but said he longs to be reunited with them.

He said they are, “sort of safe,” since fleeing their hometown of Velyka Novosilka. However, he said there have been phone conversations in which he's heard them sporadically rushing for cover during bombing raids.

“My hometown gets bombed like every day,” Davydenko said, adding its “completely destroyed.”


His family has since moved to a less volatile region, but their lives remain like so many others in his homeland — at risk.

“They're away from the front lines, but still in Ukraine, so not too safe,” he said.

Davydenko's father must stay in Ukraine as Ukrainian men have been banned from leaving the country in anticipation that they may be called upon fight. In Beach, at the Lutheran Parish, a spearheaded effort is underway to bring Davydenko’s mother, Tetiana, to the United States.

Lonnie Bacon, who is a member of the Wibaux branch of the Parish, has taken over the efforts to sponsor Tetiana as a refugee, but noted that the process has been long and arduous.

“I'm in the process of learning,” Bacon said.

Bacon met Davydenko during church activities and wanted to help him and his family.

“I can't imagine what Dima is going through every day when he hears the news,” Bacon said. “It makes my heart stop when I hear the news about what's going on in Ukraine. I can't imagine what it does to him.”

Meeting Davydenko solidified the reality of the conflict on a personal level, she added.


“The stuff you see on TV and then the reports of what they find after the Russians have been there, it's hard to fathom,” Bacon said. “We think we have problems until you see that or stop and actually think about how it affects people's those people's lives.”

As for the teenager whose dream of coming to America to experience the shinning beacon of freedom and opportunities, Davydenko's experience has proven to the Ukrainian that the American spirit is more than just ideals, flags and pledges — rather it rests in very heart of the plains people and a simple motto.

"North Dakota nice."

Aside from the wind, Davydenko said that he likes the familiar climate.

“I love also the fact that the school is kind of small,” Davydenko said. “It's basically about the same as my school back home.”

His host family are Tate and Jill Schatz. They have hosted other exchange students over the years, but have never encountered a situation quite like Davydanko’s. This is their first go at hosting the same student for two years, but they’re taking it all in stride and with a keen understanding.

“It's definitely been a joy to have him, that's for sure,” Jill Schatz said. “We have fun.”

Over the summer they were excited to have the opportunity to take Davydanko camping and introduce him to Fourth of July festivities. Davydanko said he loved the fireworks. He also has a love for ribeye steaks and said clam chowder is his favorite dish he’s tried in the U.S.


Jill Schatz said he likes to keep himself busy and has been a part of FBLA, cyber club, book club, speech, drama, basketball, and acolympics. She jokingly calls him 'smarty pants' as she boasts about how well Davydanko does academically.

He said school has been easier for him here than it was in Ukraine. He completed coursework and graduated high school in Ukraine while simultaneously attending 11th grade at Beach High School. In Ukraine, he didn’t get to choose the subjects he studied and said he enjoys the choice he has here.

“All the subjects are like, standardized and over here they are more, like, open or more branches available to study,” Davydanko said.

Ukrainian foreign exchange student Dmytro Davydenko is completed his second year of high school in Beach
Ashley Koffler / The Dickinson Press

He takes pride in a smart greenhouse project he started and received a grant for.

“I made the prototype and it was actually built in my hometown,” Davydanko said. “It fully controls itself like watering, temperature, everything. It took me like three months to make it all work.”

The project won him gold awards in two international contests. With so many unanswered questions, what Davydanko will do and where he will go after graduating from BHS is unclear.

“This American mom is hoping he’ll stay and go to college,” Jill Schatz said.

Davydanko hopes to go into the medical field and is open to the idea of staying even longer in the U.S. and attending college.


Ashley Koffler is a Killdeer, North Dakota native and Dickinson State University graduate, with a Bachelor’s Degree in writing, and minors in journalism and psychology. Formerly working in Community Affairs for Roosevelt Custer Regional Council for Development, her reporting focuses on the Dickinson city government, community features, business and agriculture — among others.
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