Ukrainian Refugee Calling Grapeland “Home” For Now

By Greg Ritchie

Messenger Reporter

GRAPELAND – The beginning of the Russo-Ukraine conflict in February, 2022 caused havoc in the lives of millions in Eastern Europe. Travel restrictions, army mobilization, sanctions and an ever-shifting front line still haunts the people affected by these events. For Daria Konkova, a foreign exchange student from Southern Ukraine, it meant her long dreamt about year studying in America might last longer than originally planned. 

Konkova recently graduated from Grapeland High School as Salutatorian, an incredibly feat for someone who’s English was only perfected the last couple of years. Runner-up in the 2022 Peanut Queen contest and constant trainer and performer at Grapeland’s Elite Fitness, Konkova hails from the city of Melitopol, now annexed by Russia and home to some of her family, caught in the middle of global politics. 

Konkova said the graduation ceremony wasn’t planned – she expected to be home long before now – but seemed to her like a dream from one of those American movies she watched as a little girl. 

“I felt great, like my American dream finally came true,” Konkova said. “Especially when we tossed those hats – that was great! I was honored to be Salutatorian, so I gave a speech and it was a great experience for me, I absolutely loved it.”

Konkova was a public speaker in Ukraine, but her confidence speaking English is a recent accomplishment as things did not start out so smoothly for her when she arrived.

“When I came, I barely spoke any English. People couldn’t understand me, I couldn’t understand people or a Texas accent,” Konkova laughed. “I made some friends in the first days because this is an advantage of going to a small school. They helped me improve my English because they were trying to talk to me, and I didn’t have a choice, I had to talk back. My first month, I had to use Google Translator all the time, even with my host family…it was really funny.”

When one reads about the great conflicts and wars throughout history, the story of the average people often gets left out. When one country annexes another, or a country ceases to exist altogether – it’s the common person who finds themselves in the vortex trying to find their new place and identity. So it has been with Konkova, who is from an area of the world she cannot now travel to and which has been claimed by another country. 

Konkova is looking to find a summer job and eventually study online before choosing the next steps in her path. Able to work legally, she is still on a student visa which limits the hours she can work. Designated a refugee, she still has not received any kind of permanent residence documents for long term stay in the U.S. Given the ongoing battles and turmoil back home, it’s unclear how to stay and impossible to go home. Her native city is now technically part of Russia, but she and her family and still Ukrainian citizens. 

Math is still her favorite subject, with plans to be work in banking or finance down the road. Konkova took U.S. history and took dual-credit courses for college credit along the way, too. Unable to visit her family in Ukraine, with the recent annexation of this area, even sending or receiving packages has become impossible. Hoping to get her longterm visa and finish college in the U.S., Konkova hopes within a year the situation will calm enough for her at least to see her mother and grandparents. Her year-long adventure in America may well turn out to be a several year residency. 

She said she thinks Ukraine may take back her city, but after the dramatic pictures of battle sites in Ukraine, she herself wondered what might be worse – annexation or battle. Tough issues for a someone who just finished high school. 

Konkova did have a message for any businesses in the Grapeland area looking to hire a young lady with a lot of smarts and who could use some assistance. 

“I would really appreciate it,” Konkova said. “I have skills and have been taking some accounting classes. I’m social and good with people, my English has gotten much better so now I can communicate very well! I think I’ll be a great addition to your team – and I would work really, really hard.”

Greg Ritchie can be reached at [email protected] 

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