With everything going on in his life right now—war in his home country, school, work and swim practice with competitions coming up—he still met me with a carefree, ear-to-ear smile on a gloomy Sunday.
Even though Ukraine is talked about a lot in the news today, some people still ask in which U.S. state is “the Ukraine.” Ukraine is a country in Eastern Europe bordering Russia, Poland, Romania, Belarus and the Black Sea.
“I’m tired of having to explain it all the time, so I say that I am from Russia,” he said.
Fedyna is not the only swimmer in the family. His brother, who is five years his senior, is a seven-time Paralympic champion.
“We were always together,” he said. “He actually can be considered my father. He taught me everything and he made me who I am right now.”
He also spoke very fondly of his mother. She is a physiotherapist, “the smartest person he knows”. His dad is an electrician and travels frequently between Kiev and Moscow in Russia.
Growing up in Ukraine was rough, Fedyna said, because the country had (and still has) problems with crime, alcohol, corruption and poverty.
“I always walked around with a screwdriver. That was my thing. In Ukraine, you are not allowed to carry any kind of weapon. No guns, no knife.”
Many international students experience some kind of culture shock when they first arrive in the United States. Fedyna said he experienced positive shock.
“Everyone is nice and can help you without taking something back, that was my biggest shock. In Ukraine, people are most of the time not [willing to help] each other because if you help someone it means he can use you and if someone is helping you it means he wants something back from you,” he said. “The first couple of weeks in the U.S., I did not trust people at all. I was the same as in Ukraine. I tried to ignore them and not talk to them, did not smile a lot. It’s a habit in the Ukraine; if you smile, you are showing your weakness.”If you keep up with the news today, you might know that Ukraine is at war. Fedyna’s girlfriend, friends and family still live there, so he schedules three hours a day to talk to them.
“Every day I wake up and feel that something may have happened,” he explained. “I need to call to ask how they are.”
About a year ago, protests led to the removal of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. The protests later escalated to war between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian military. Fedyna shared that his friend was sleeping when he heard four rockets hit a high high-rise building with only civilians living there.
“Unofficially, 10,000 people have died. No one is coming. The building is just lying there on the ground, dead people are lying there stinking and no one is taking care of it.
He has another friend who worked in an ice cream factory in Luhansk, a city among many others that is now destroyed.
“She said at first we would put the dead bodies in the refrigerator of the ice cream machines. Then, we figured out that there were so many dead bodies that we would never find enough space to put them in the refrigerator, so we just decided to let them lay on the ground.”
“It is a big panic in the Ukraine right now. They are not thinking a lot, just doing a lot,” Fedyna said of the Ukrainian army, a military that is so desperate for more soldiers that they now force people to fight by having the police show up with military officials at their house and hand them a conscription order. Like many of Fedyna’s friends, his father is in hiding because they have tried three times to hand him an order. The people who are handed the order get to choose: join the military or spend seven years in jail. Police and military officials have already showed up at his parents’ house twice trying to hand him an order, but because he is in the United States and his parents refuse to reveal where he is, he cannot be forced to join. They even tried three times to hand an order to his brother, a Paralympic swimmer with bad eyesight.“I called my friend and he said he was in class at the university. Police and military came in and said, ‘You, you, you, you, you’ to all the guys who were between 20 and 30, so pretty much every one,” said Fedyna. “They drafted them, checked them out at the hospital and sent them to training military camp right before departure.”
If the military is bad, the government is bad and the war is bad, what hope do Ukrainians have?
“If Ukrainians want a big change in their country, it has to start with themselves,” said Fedyna. “Stop to pick trash off the street, start to be more polite, smiling and do not give into corruption.”