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Hastings to Oslo, Norway: An unexpected journey

It began last year in Mr. Lutz’ history class. One of the projects was a “Job Shadow,” where a student spent some time with someone who had a job that the student was interested in possibly making a career. Roman Polishchuk was in that class.

Roman was the 17-year-old Ukrainian exchange-student of Curt and Sharon Aaseng of Hastings. He stayed with the Aasengs for the 2012-2013 school year.

One of Roman’s interests was an international career. He had studied English for several years with a private tutor, hoping that he would be able to broaden his job choices by doing this.

Curt and Sharon put Roman in contact with an acquaintance of theirs, Orlyn Kringstad, whom they knew through Mindekirken, a Minneapolis church where services are offered in Norwegian on a weekly basis. Orlyn works for The Oslo Center (for Peace and Human Rights). He readily agreed to Roman’s request to explore his job. Roman was invited to the Arab Spring event at the University of Minnesota. But that was not all.

The entire next day, Roman spent the day with Orlyn, going with him to various appointments around the Twin Cities. Later, Roman received an invitation to attend an event focused on Myanmar at the Minneapolis Club, as well as being offered to observe a trial at the federal courthouse in Minneapolis. The connection Roman made with Orlyn continued even after Roman left Minnesota last May. They emailed each other as Roman went on to become a student at Ivan Franko National University in Lviv, Ukraine, where he began to study Political Science, International Relations, and Foreign Language Translation.

Roman has missed his old life in Hastings but has done well at his university, in spite of Ukraine’s problems which started last November. Lviv has had its share of protests, even though the world was more attuned to Kiev and its Maidan demonstrators. Lviv lies in western Ukraine, a fair distance from Kiev and even further from the violence which has plagued eastern Ukraine. University students have traditionally been an important part of protest movements around the globe, and Ukraine has been no different in that respect. Roman’s western part of Ukraine speaks Ukrainian, as opposed to the eastern side with its many Russian-speakers.

Before coming to Minnesota, Roman had overcome many challenges in his young life. About six years ago, he was gravely ill because of a failing kidney. The diseased kidney was removed and Roman faced a recuperation that most 12-year-olds will never have to face. His health issues on one hand were combined with the general struggles many Ukrainians face in their daily lives. Rampant corruption and harsh living conditions are a day-to-day reality that have affected his family and many others.

Roman has kept the Aasengs informed of the situation in Ukraine. From the Maidan protests to the threat of civil war to the precarious political situation, he has sent articles and videos, in addition to discussing things on Skype with them. Roman also continued to stay in contact with Orlyn. He kept him current from a student’s perspective.

On March 23, Curt and Sharon attended services at Mindekirken. There, Orlyn told them that he had invited Roman to speak at a conference in Oslo, Norway. Partnership for Change, an international organization, was sponsoring the event. Orlyn works for them as Sr. Vice President Global Development/Executive Director USA. Roman was to represent Ukraine. It was to be held on May 14. Roman was offered a chance to spend the whole week in Oslo, culminating in the 200-year jubilee celebration of the Norwegian Constitution.

Roman was very enthusiastic about attending the Partnership for Change conference. But he also knew how much work would have to be done to make it happen. Ukraine’s worsening instability was first and foremost a real concern. With the threat of war looming, he nevertheless completed numerous assignments for his university studies and submitted paperwork to obtain a visa to travel to Norway, among other things.

When the Aasengs learned that Roman had been invited to go to Norway, they decided that they would go to Oslo and be there for him. They wanted to support him in this incredible opportunity he’d been offered, as well as show Roman around Oslo, where the Aaseng family had lived from 1997 to 2000.

It was arranged that Roman and Orlyn would meet the Aasengs in Oslo on May 10. The Aasengs had last seen Roman almost exactly one year prior.

A few days before Roman’s scheduled speech, he attended the Oslo Center seminar. There, Orlyn introduced him to former Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik and former President of Latvia, Vaira Vike-Freiberga.

On Wednesday, Roman gave his address as the keynote speaker for PFC’s morning session of “Democracy During Conflict.” He spoke with great poise and conviction about his country, its struggles and its potential. Several of the points he made were echoed by the speakers who followed him: a United States federal judge and American ex-director of NATO (both of whom Roman had met while in Minnesota) and a Norwegian history professor at the University of Oslo. The four engaged in a panel discussion immediately after the speeches. Roman earned much praise for his participation. Many people commented on what a favorable impression he had made on them.

Roman concentrated his time during the luncheon mingling with and talking to the attendees of the conference.

During the rest of the week in Oslo, Roman went to various meetings and also receptions in the evenings. He again met Prime Minister Bondevik at the Oslo Center. One of the receptions was at the home of one of the wealthiest couples in Norway.

As a special treat, Roman and the Aasengs had the privilege of watching the May 17th parade from the vantage point of the University of Oslo Library, again as guests of Orlyn. The group of guests gathered to see some of the 60,000 children from 116 schools walk up to the Royal Palace at the top of Karl Johan’s street and salute the Royal Family. The Royal Family has a tradition of waving at the crowds from the balcony. Oslo was alive with thousands of Norwegian flags of all sizes, waved by many thousands of Norwegians in their native costumes (bunads). In fact, the overwhelming majority of Norwegians both young and old were wearing their bunads or their very finest outfits. Countless tulips of every color were in full bloom, and the weather was sunny and gorgeous.

After refreshments at the Library, after the parade was over, Roman and some of his new colleagues and the Aasengs walked down Karl Johan’s street to the Opera for a special musical performance by groups of children and youth of all ethnic backgrounds. This in turn was followed by a picnic supper at the home of some of the Aasengs’ friends.

All told, not only does Roman’s future look bright, but the future of Ukraine holds promise as Roman, and young people like him, work to make their country a better place. Hastings can be proud that it was here, in Mr. Lutz’s HHS history class, that it all started.

by Sharon Aaseng

Special to the Star Gazette