Sports have always used war terminology like football’s bombs, volleyball’s kills, and basketball’s shooters.
But Meridian basketball player Ruslan Berzhatyi knows that real war is no game. Eight months ago, Berzhatyi, his parents, and his younger brother were living amidst the horrors of real war in their homeland of Ukraine.
“Living in our old house … (it) was already quite dangerous because we saw shelling there,” the 16-year-old said. “Our house was shaking, and some houses in the whole area had been hit by bombs, so there was very close combat, and we could not stay there.”
Pause for a moment and reflect on that. Pearl Harbor and 9-11 aside, no American civilians have been under attack from a foreign enemy since the Civil War more than 150 years ago.
For the people of Ukraine, the Russian invasion in February 2022 has left roughly 40,000 civilians dead in addition to 100,000 soldiers. Add to that almost 5 million refugees, including the Berzhatyi family.
“How can anything in your life have meaning when your life is under attack?” asked Meridian coach Shane Stacy. “School? Basketball? I can talk about empathy and putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. But how I can do that? I have no clue.”
The truth is, no one can unless they’ve seen the effects of war and death first-hand. And for the young Trojan, the war is still only a television screen or computer away.
“Of course I see news, talk to my friends in Ukraine,” said Berzhatyi. “I try to help them, because they have more bad situation than mine. We would like to live there (again), but for now there’s really, really, really bad situation. I don’t know when we can come back. It’s incredibly scary.”
Berzhatyi considers himself one of the fortunate ones to have escaped the nightmare. Ukrainian friends living here told his family about Whatcom County and they settled in the Laurel area. With the help of their friends and their friends’ church, the Berzhatyis found refuge and a home.
“We moved to America because America is the best place to move to in this world,” he said. When asked what was best about moving to America, his answer was simple: “No one tries to kill me.”
It was safer here, but it wasn’t easier. Like for all refugees, the security came at a price.
“Apart from a few acquaintances there was no one here (from the Ukraine) and it was difficult to start a new life, when there’s no longer an old house, old friends, etc., nothing of the old life,” he said of leaving all his relatives and friends in his hometown of Kyiv.
“It is literally starting life in the very beginning, and it is hard when in a new country you are in a new language, a new culture, and new people.”
Fortunately, there was something from the old country that was the same — sort of. Basketball.
“I think it was the third week of school that I saw him — a 6-foot-2 guy with a giant wingspan — and I told him, ‘You’ve got to play basketball,’” said Stacy.
Berzhatyi said he’d played the sport since he was little both for clubs and in schools. He even brought his old team’s jersey with him to America.
But American basketball is much more regimented with lots of plays and strategies. And then there’s the language barrier.
While he’s surprisingly fluent after only eight months in his adopted country and is a naturally outgoing young man, he still needs the translation app on his phone for more complicated communications. That doesn’t work well when trying to break a fullcourt press in the middle of a game.
“He’s athletic and it’s gotten better,” said Stacy. “But the language barrier has been difficult. And early on there was still quite a bit of heartache.”
Berzhatyi said that despite his love for basketball, he didn’t want to play here. “It was like really confusing,” he said. “Basketball team in another language and new people. I was scared and confused.”
Enter the Meridian basketball team. Berzhatyi is on the junior varsity, but both the JV and varsity squads have rallied around their teammate and embraced him as one of their own.
“I really liked it after I started playing here because it’s a really good team, and there are really cool guys playing here who helped me every time I needed something,” he said.
“They would give me a ride home, give me some things that we lacked, or helped me in any way. They really supported me and made me happy. Somehow I know I had someone to talk to at school.”
And then there are the coaches. His JV coach, Jackson Short — yes, the same Jackson Short who led the Trojans to state in 2020 — acts as his “personal interpreter” despite not knowing a bit of Ukrainian. And Stacy has done his best to make Berzhatyi feel more at home.
“Our coach, Mr. Stacy, really supported me when I was having a hard time,” said Berzhatyi. “He even once turned on songs in Ukrainian when we were practicing to make me feel better because it was hard for me because of everything that is happening in Ukraine. Everyone has helped me if they could, and I am very grateful for that.”
Stacy also was grateful for his team’s accepting of their foreign teammate — make that their foreign friend.
“He’s one of the guys,” said Stacy. “They joke around with him. They don’t see the heartache as much. They’ve accepted him.”
Yet despite the comfort and fun in being part of a team, the heartache isn’t far away. When asked what he would tell his friends back in the Ukraine, Berzhatyi was serious.
“I would tell them that I know how difficult it is for them,” he said, “And even though it can not be expressed in words, they must remain strong, and continue to believe in themselves and in their country … The war is not over and won’t be over until we win and get the full freedom of our country, independence, and rebuild everything that was taken from us.”
Jim Carberry is a former Bellingham Herald sports editor and author of several books on Whatcom County prep basketball. Follow him on Twitter @whatcomhoops and visit the Whatcom Hoops Facebook page.