WHS foreign exchange student from Ukraine safe

Olya Schenky, shown here with Wayland High School Principal Tom Cutler, receives her diploma in 2016.

Olya Schenky, perhaps Wayland’s first-ever Muslim foreign exchange student, is safe in Ukraine thus far during the Russian invasion, but she has plenty of worries about what happens next.

Connie VanHouten, who with husband Tim served as Schenky’s American parents in Wayland in 2016, reported, “She is safe at the moment but extremely afraid. She has sent me many messages about what is really taking place. We both have cried all day about the situation. She has sent me photos of her city in smoke.”

VanHouten said her latest message Thursday evening was: “Russian soldiers are attacking along the borders, our army is trying hard to keep them away. Meanwhile, there are sounds of rockets launching in Eastern Ukraine, my family is in bombshell now. The hotel I am staying in in the western Ukraine is empty, the parking lot that is usually full is empty.

“Very scary. But we cannot leave the house after 10 p.m. for our safety. They are saying that Russians will be attacking at night. I would love to come to any safe place. Now air space is closed here. I am still waiting for Ahmed to come to Lviv (the city I am in now), he is driving now. Once he comes, we will sit down to make a plan of what to do!”

I personally was very impressed with Olya when she spent a year as a Wayland High School student. I was told she was a model student, an academic achiever, and I found her to an incredibly polite and well-mannered young lady.

I wrote in a Townbroadcast column back then:

“I resisted the temptation to do a perky, positive feature story, despite the fact she may be one of the most unique students ever in these parts. You didn’t have to be particularly observant to come to the understanding there was a Muslim student in our midst over the past academic year.

“I noticed it because of a group photo in January of business students who excelled in a district competition. She was one of them, but what gave her away was her custom of wearing a head scarf. She showed up occasionally in other group photos, but I continued to be reluctant to do a story about her.

“The reason was that I believed if I called attention to her presence here it could cause her trouble. I wondered if some local xenophobe could inflict some kind of emotional damage.

“Muslims these days are particularly unpopular among certain Americans. The situation has become so toxic that many oppose allowing refugees from Syria seeking asylum in the United States. It’s become so toxic that some actually believe all Muslims are terrorists.

“I have my issues with Muslims mostly because of the way they treat women. But I still believe in that do-gooder liberal notion of living in peaceful co-existence with other human beings.

“I finally ended my news blackout when Wayland Schools public relations specialist Laurie Zywiczynski sent a picture and brief information about Olya making a presentation to a class explaining her faith because so often it is misunderstood.

“Almost immediately there was one response asking how the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) could permit a Muslim to promote a religion in school while Christians could not. Obviously, this person, like too many others, misunderstands the meaning of separation of church and state. Freedom of religion is not prohibited in our schools. God is not forbidden, despite what you may have heard. Prayer has not been banned. A student or any employee can pray over a meal or before a test, no one can stop him or her.

“The trouble arises when someone leads everyone else in prayer, thereby telling them what to pray. The real problem is proselytizing, or attempting conversion.

“Olya most certainly wasn’t trying to convert anyone to her faith. She was attempting to provide information, to promote understanding, to reduce the antagonism that we have become famous for.

“…And as Olya proved to us here, she’s a terrific example of humanity.”

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