Marko Kononenko plays keeper in the seven-on-seven Pittsfield Soccer League earlier this month.
GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. – In February of 2022, the whole western world was speculating about what would happen on the border between Russia and Ukraine.
An invasion by Moscow was looming but not inevitable, and to some, it seemed inconceivable.
That was the case for 16-year-old Marko Kononenko, a secondary school student and soccer player.
"I can tell you that if you talk to every Ukrainian, no one believed it could happen," Kononenko, now 18, recalled recently. "No one wanted to believe. And when the news started to say the war could happen, no one believed. My mom worked in the Canadian embassy in Ukraine, and everyone in the Canadian embassy started picking up stuff two weeks before the war started.
"I remember, she came back from work and she collected all of us [Marko and his two younger siblings] in the kitchen, like the kids. And we had a long conversation that the war could happen, what we should take with us, what we shouldn't take with us, what our plans were if we were hit. The three of us didn't take it serious. We thought, 'Our mom is panicking.' We were worried about our school stuff. It was preseason. It was winter. It was preseason for another part of our season with my team. We were preparing so hard."
But Marko's parents were preparing for something bigger than the spring soccer season.
"I remember, we had our tickets for the train to Ternopil [six hours west of Kyiv], and my dad was giving me a ride to my practice the same day we had tickets on the train," Kononenko said. "I asked my dad, 'Dad, I don't know what to do. They're leaving. They're supposed to leave today for Ternopil. Should I go with them or not? What should I decide?' I wanted to hear something like advice from him. But he said, 'Decide faster.'
"And I understood, in that moment, it's only my decision at that time."
A pretty big decision for a 16-year-old kid.
"Yeah, exactly. I went to my coach, and my coach is 62 years old, so he's pretty wise and old," Kononenko said. "He saw life in the Soviet Union. I asked him. I told him the situation. He knows I'm a really hard worker. I come to every practice. I'm a leader on the team. But I told him, 'The war can happen. I don't know.' He said, 'Marko, it's all fake. Nothing will happen. But, it's your choice. I will understand if you leave.'
"It was like two hours, but in my head, it was forever to make this decision to stay or to go with my family – no school, no practices for I don't know how long. I decided to listen to my mom and to go with my family. I just accepted that if we were hit, I would not be able to leave anywhere from Kyiv. I don't know if you saw how long was the line of cars. There was no gas for cars because everyone was trying to get out at once.
"We got on the train. We went to Ternopil. We were there with my grandma."
So began a journey that took Marko, his mother and his younger brother and sister first to Ternopil, then neighboring Poland, then Utah in the United States and, more recently, to Great Barrington, where in September Marko will be attending and playing soccer for Monument Mountain Regional High School.
His father, for a time, stayed behind in their homeland and fought to defend Ukraine's sovereignty. Today, the whole family is under one roof but still keeping an eye on events back home.
This summer, Marko spent some time playing keeper for the Great Barrington-based team in the seven-on-seven Pittsfield Soccer League, which plays its games evenings in Pittsfield's Wahconah Park. He has had a chance to play alongside his future high school coach and get to know some of the current players and recent alumni from what will be his fourth school in three years.
Through it all, his mother has been a rock.
"My mom is a really smart person," Kononenko said. "While we were busy with school and practices and stuff, she was planning and doing everything to make the children feel safe and keep living their peaceful lives. She also got her job as an accountant in Utah – close to what she did back in Ukraine in the Canadian embassy. And her [employer] offered her to keep the job here in Massachusetts online."
Sitting on the deck of the home his family is borrowing, Kononenko talked about life in Ukraine, his family's exodus from the now war-torn nation, the friends and family who helped along the way and how soccer has remained a constant for him and helped him make the transition to life in America.
Here are some of his reflections:
Question: How long have you been here in Great Barrington?
Kononenko: We arrived around a month ago to Great Barrington.
Q: Who is 'we'?
Kononenko: We have a family of five. My mom is working right now online. My dad and all my family are here. I have two siblings. A sister, she is 12, and a brother, he is 15.
Q: And last year you were living in Utah?
Kononenko: Yes, we came in August (2022) to Utah.
My dad had an educational center in Kyiv. It was for Russian and Ukrainian language for foreigners. He worked with American military, and one of his students was part of the American Air Force, Dustin Olson.
When the war started, we moved to Poland on the second day of the war, and we lived in Poland for five months. Then, there were a lot of Ukrainians in Poland. They were so nice to us. They gave us an apartment in the middle of the city. We were in Torun [Poland]. They just said, 'We'll give you an apartment, live there as long as you need.'
My mom wanted us to learn English more than Polish because it gives you more opportunities. So the time we were in Poland, we were looking to Canada or the United States to move. And this student of my dad, Dustin Olson, he was a student in 2008, so a long connection. He said, 'Come to Utah. We have a big house. We have six kids. It will work fine. We will find everything for your family.'
They gave us, for four people, three rooms. I was with my brother. My sister was on her own, and my mother was on her own. My father came to visit us in the United States in November of 2022 because I had my soccer tournament. I played for the Utah Avalanche club, and we had a tournament in San Diego, Calif. He missed us so much, we missed him so much, so it was a really emotional meeting.
Q: So is your dad still there?
Kononenko: No, he's here now with us. … He went back to Ukraine [after the November visit], but he came to us in February  and stayed with us.
When the war started, in the first days, we left for Poland, and my dad joined the Territorial Defense. He was there for a while. He did a lot of work in Ukraine, and we missed each other so much. When we came to Poland, we haven't seen each other for four months. He came to visit us and then went back again.
Because he is the father of three children, he could go out of Ukraine. But the men 18 to 60, they cannot go out. But because he had three children … it's an exception. He could stay with us from the beginning of the war, but he chose to fight. He chose to defend the country. And that's only respect for my dad.
When we left Ukraine for the war, I was 16. Now I'm 18. He doesn't have the exception anymore because I'm considered an adult. You have to have a minimum of three children.
Q: Is he going to have to go back?
Kononenko: No, it's his choice now. But he still runs a charity fund for Ukraine.
He works with [musician and philanthropist] Cameron Melville. Cameron Melville raises millions of dollars to Ukraine.
Q: Why move from Utah to Massachusetts?
Kononenko: We understood that Dustin's family was very welcoming and helped us a lot to understand the system in the United States – insurance, schools. But they also have six children. They kind of need freedom. We need freedom, too.
I mentioned Cameron Melville, he worked with my dad since the war started. He helped so much. And Cameron had a friend who he introduced to my dad. He heard our story and said, 'I have a house. No one lives there. You can live there as much as you need.'
We moved from Utah to Massachusetts. We were driving for five days.
After two days of driving, we stopped in Minneapolis. There was a camp where my father worked for three years. He came from Ukraine to the United States just to work in the camp in 1995, 1996 and 1997. They respected him there so much, and the connections were saved. We went to the camp to meet these people he spent his youth with. So we had this week off after two days of driving and then continued.
Q: Had you ever been to the U.S. before all this?
Kononenko: My grandma worked in the United States for 13 years. And when I was 2 or 3 years old, I visited her in New York. I remember some moments, but I don't remember much.
Q: So realistically, you were coming here more or less for the first time when you moved to Utah?
Q: What was that like? Obviously, your English is very good. You could give me 10 years to study Ukrainian, and I would not be half as good in your native language as you are in mine. But what was it like culturally getting used to life in the U.S.?
Kononenko: You said 10 years? I can tell you you would because we had English classes in our Ukrainian schools since first grade. And I can tell you we even started learning English in the [kindergarten]. It's necessary that you have to learn a foreign language – English or German or some language.
Q: Even beyond any language barriers, just culturally, how much of an adjustment was it?
Kononenko: We went to Canada in 2019 with my mother, and I couldn't speak at all. We were visiting her friends, and her friend had two kids, one was one year older and another was like my brother. I was really shy speaking with them. I was thinking about one sentence, how to say it, 300 times. And when I finally spoke to them, I would confuse the words. It was hard.
But when I came to the United States, I already could speak some English, so I think it wasn't so hard for me. But, still, when the guys on the team were joking, I didn't get it. The books we read at school, it's much harder. I have to read Ukrainian translations. When we read in school one or two chapters in English, and they give us another chapter to read at home, I have to read all three chapters at home, translate them, understand what is the book about.
Q: And you will be a senior this year?
Q: Are you looking at colleges, too? Have you talked to any?
Kononenko: I am looking at colleges. … I was in the Amherst College camp on Friday, a three-day camp. I'm just looking at colleges and trying to find out something about them. It's a new page for me adjusting. I came my junior year, and I have to learn a lot about colleges, coaches and how does it all work.
Q: You've obviously made a connection with [Monument Mountain coach Matt] Naventi and some of the guys on the seven-on-seven league team? How much of a help has it been to have some time with them?
Kononenko: Exactly. It's helping. Soccer is my favorite thing. So as much as I can play, I'm always happy. Every opportunity here, I'm happy to take it. And when you play on one field with the coach, it's always good.
Q: And I think it will probably help that you will show up on the first day of practice knowing some people.
Kononenko: On the 7 v 7 team, a lot of the guys graduated. But some of the players from the school get together and play a few days a week. I met a lot of guys there besides the guys I met on 7 v 7. And I also sent my profile and highlights video when I was in Utah to coach Naventi. I think a lot of guys knew me. I knew some guys because they follow me on social media. So it was a warm welcome from them.
Q: How easy or difficult has it been to be accepted by your fellow athletes or fellow high school students, to fit in socially and all that?
Kononenko: Socially, it's still challenging for me. In Utah, they knew each other since elementary school, and I'm kind of new everywhere now. I didn't have that many memories in my life. And it's a different language. They speak about their own topics. It's still difficult for me. But I'm trying to find every opportunity to speak, to joke, to laugh. But still, my level of language doesn't let me understand everything.
But, I am considered a good athlete. When you have good skills, you are welcome everywhere.
Q: Does that help? Obviously, there is some verbal communication on the soccer field, but it's mostly about your physical skill and ability. Having that time when you're on the field and it's not as much about language, does it help to bridge that divide?
Kononenko: It helps. The soccer language is written on every language.
Q: What are you hearing from folks back home? You have extended family and probably friends you keep in touch with, I'm sure.
Kononenko: Yeah, we're still in touch. My folks, they moved all over Europe. Some are in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Poland, Slovenia, the Czech Republic. A lot of countries, they're kind of everywhere. But we still keep in touch, texting each other, Facetime. In modern times, it's easier to keep in touch. But, of course, it's such an experience we had together when we were meeting in life.
Some of them are in Ukraine, and it's really hard. Every day there are sirens going, warning sirens. You have to go into the bomb shelter every time they hit.
Q: You mentioned your dad's institute was in Kyiv, but did you live in Kyiv or near there or…?
Kononenko: Yes, we lived in Kyiv. We had an amazing life in Kyiv. We had an apartment. We went to good private schools. I played for an elite-level junior club. We played against really competitive teams. I was really happy in Ukraine. I had my friends, classmates. Everything was good.
… I want to tell you I have two grandmas. One of them is on the west, in Ternopil. But she was in the United States for 13 years, so I met her in New York. She really missed [my childhood]. She didn't see her grandkids growing up, so it was really painful for her.
But my other grandma, who lives in the south in Skadovs'k, my grandma and grandpa, we went there every summer. There is the Black Sea. My dad is from there, and it was the best times of my life. Every summer holiday, we were there. I had friends from there. Every day, I played football, and then, after football, we immediately went to the beach to swim and play beach football. It's a really small town. I don't know, maybe even smaller than Great Barrington. You could go everywhere on the bike.
My grandma from Skadovs'k, she cooked so good, and I miss so much her food. She's in occupation right now. This area is occupied since the first day of the war because Skadovs'k is really close to Crimea. My grandma and grandpa are in occupation. I call her once a week, and we talk. She's always happy when I call her. It's always emotional, but it's really hard for them to be there in occupation.
Eventually, the conversation turns back to the Kononenko family's time in Ternopil, where Marko, his brother and mother crammed together on a small convertible couch in the home of his maternal grandmother waiting to see what would happen with Russia's threats of invasion.
Kononenko: If me and my brother were both sleeping on the couch, my mom would sleep on a big handle of the couch. She put some pillows under her legs to create some space. I told my mom, 'One day if you want, we will switch. You can be comfortable.' I remember, I was sleeping on that handle, and I woke up at 4 in the morning on the 24th of February. I woke up to go to the bathroom, and my mom asked me, 'Are you good, are you OK.' And I thought she was asking if I was OK sleeping on that handle. I didn't know the war had already started. I said, 'Yeah, I'm OK. Everything's good.' I went to the bathroom, I came back, and I woke up at around 9 in the morning and opened Telegram, it's a messenger where we all speak, and my team from Kyiv, they were all panicking and shocked. They sent a video of everything bombed. Everything was on fire, especially in the Kyiv area because Kyiv was the main target. Tanks were going, and my friends were like, 'We don't understand what's going on.'
Then, we were collecting our stuff. We didn't have much stuff. So we just took everything we needed right now. We packed our car. We had a really small car, a Suzuki Jimmy – two seats in the back, two in the front without really a trunk. And we needed to find gasoline. It was nearly impossible, even in Ternopil where the lines weren't so big. It was nearly impossible, but my mom, somehow, asked some police officers to give us, like, five gallons of gas.
Marko's mother made contact with a friend in Poland who she knew from decades earlier when they worked together in the United Kingdom. The old friend offered the family a destination in the neighboring country if they could get out of Ukraine.
Kononenko: We went to the border, and the line was huge. You understand that there was a line to the border, and we stayed in the line to the line to the border. We didn't know how far was the border and how long does it take to cross it. You go like 1 meter in 10 minutes, at most. So slow, a lot of cars.
I don't remember at what time we finally crossed the border, but if you take the whole time we were there, it was 40 hours. Forty hours without sleep, almost without food. Small car, a lot of stuff.
And when we arrived to Poland, my mother's friend, she waited for us since 5 a.m. We crossed the border and got to her and it was already dark – 3 p.m. or something like that. They took us, and we went to their apartment, and we were sleeping on the rug there. We were in their apartment for three days. We didn't do anything. We just slept because it was so exhausting.
There were two more [friends of my mom], they were helping with everything. They found us an apartment. I went to the local club for free, it was Juventus Torun. I was practicing for free. We had free dinners. We had free public transportation for Ukrainians. We could go anywhere in Poland on the train to another city for free if you had a Ukrainian passport. And a local high school made two Ukrainian classes for Ukrainians. In that small town of Torun, there were 50 [Ukrainian] kids in high school – two separate classes with 25 children. … After two weeks, we could already speak some Polish with Polish kids.
I made really good friends there. Everybody was in one situation. We were united. Everybody was from a different area of Ukraine. I think I was the only one from Kyiv.
Q: How long were you in Poland?
Kononenko: Four or five months. I arrived in Poland in March, and we left Poland in July.
Q: And the friends you made there, have they pretty much stayed in Poland or have their families also dispersed?
Kononenko: I keep in touch with a couple of guys from Poland. One of them is in university in Poznan [Poland]. A couple of them stayed there. But some of them also came back to Ukraine.
Q: You mentioned that you talk to your grandmother in the south frequently. In addition to her, how much do you follow the day-to-day events of what's going on in the war, where the front is, that kind of thing.
Kononenko: When the war started, the first three months, every day – every day reading everything. But then, I just, let it go, but I still read stuff about Ukraine. The war is still closer in my head than it is. Everytime we sit in the car or the whole family is behind this table eating dinner, e it is news. It's always news, always what happened, at what point are we counter attacking or defending, what village, what city was freed. Because everyday it's changing. I still hear it. My parents are following it every day, so I hear it from them and their phones.
My grandparents can't tell me much because they hear everything, the Russian soldiers. You can't say much.
Q: Obviously, in a perfect world, the war ends as soon as possible with a successful conclusion for the Ukrainian people. When the day happens, whenever that day comes, do you see yourself going back right away? Or do you even think about that?
Kononenko: I want to stay in the United States and study. Even before the war, in Ukraine, I thought about the United States and studying here.
Q: So finish university here and then make a decision?
Kononenko: Yes. It's perfect to go to college, play soccer and study. That's what I'm looking for here. But I still miss Ukraine, and I want to come back.
Q: My questions have all focused on you through all this. But you have other family here, your siblings, how are they adjusting and dealing with all this?
Kononenko: My sister has a friend in Ukraine, her best friend. They are in touch every day, and she misses everything. She would definitely come back to Ukraine in the same second the war is finished. We all had a good time in Ukraine, and she still has her childhood. She's only 12. And my brother, too, he will go to 10th grade. He has friends in Ukraine. His friends are in the Netherlands now, but they had a very good time in Ukraine. I think he will go back to Ukraine, too. He really misses it. He dreams about it.
Q: Hopefully that day comes as soon as possible for all your sake and for your family that's there now. I can't imagine what the last couple of years have been like for all of you.
Kononenko: I always wanted to come to the United States, but home is always the best. The United States is helping Ukraine so much, and the people here are great. I'm grateful. But home is always home.
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Bard Queer Leadership Project to Host Next Queer Leaders Vision Forum
GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. — The Bard Queer Leadership Project (BQLP) will host its next Queer Leaders Vision Forum with Paula M. Neira, a nurse, lawyer, and trans rights and healthcare advocate.
Provost and Vice President John B. Weinstein and Director of the Bard Queer Leadership Project, Dr. Carla Stephens, will join Neira in conversation.
The event will be held on Thursday, Dec. 7, at 7 p.m. in the Clark Auditorium on the Simon's Rock campus. The event is free and open to the public. It can also be accessed via livestream following this link: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/84963910511
Paula M. Neira holds both a law degree and a nursing degree, but she didn't grow up thinking she'd be interested in either field. Neira graduated with distinction from the United States Naval Academy in 1985 and served primarily as a surface warfare officer until 1991, when she came to terms with her gender identity. At that point in time, serving as an openly transgender woman in the military "was not an option," leading her to leave the Navy and begin a career in nursing. "Nursing allowed me to have a career path where I could continue to serve," said Neira. Sticking to a "high-stress, life and death stakes career," Neira served as an ER nurse for five years before attending law school.
Neira decided to attend law school so as a nurse she would "have a voice at the table" during a time when nurses were not seen as "an interdependent, co-equal profession." After completing an accelerated program at Thomas M. Cooley Law School, Neira relocated to Washington to pursue an opportunity with the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), now known as the Modern Military Association of America. She served as a Staff Attorney and subsequently on SLDN's Board of Directors and as the Co-Chair of its Military Advisory Committee. In her time at SLDN, Neira helped lead the efforts to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell. As a leading expert on transgender military service, she helped lead the efforts to change the regulations that allowed for open transgender service in 2016, before President Trump reversed that new policy in early 2017.
Neira began working for Johns Hopkins Medicine as the Nurse Educator in the Department of Emergency Medicine in 2008. With the founding of the Johns Hopkins Center for Transgender Health in 2017, she serves as its inaugural Clinical Program Director. In that role, Neira works with senior leadership to oversee an interdisciplinary service line that is aimed at providing comprehensive care for transgender people. Paula strives to match patients with the services they need and improve the health system's ability to provide culturally and clinically competent care for the LGBTQ+ community. Additionally, Neira currently serves as the Secretary on the Board of Directors for GLMA: Health Professionals Advancing LGBTQ+ Equality.
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