Jess Bengtson Chief Editor
It all started with the 1989 4-H cultural exchange program when Connie Hannesson’s son, Darby Miller, went to Russia. There Darby met Eugene Vorobiev and soon after Eugene became part of their Crookston family. Fast forward to March 25, 2022, when Connie received a call from her “Russian son” Eugene asking if she would accept to host a 14-year-old Ukrainian boy so he could continue his education in a safe and peaceful place. . As a mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and Christian, “no” was never an option. Now Connie is looking for a host family in Crookston for the 2022-2023 school year, with Connie serving as a base or anchor.
Ukrainian teenager, Max, is currently attending an English-speaking boarding school in France until June 1, 2022, while his mother shares a rented room with another Ukrainian whose child attends the same school.
Max and his mother, Dina, a judge who worked in Kharkiv and a friend of Eugene, fled Ukraine after missile attacks destroyed their village during the recent Russian invasion. It took them 13 hours to travel 150 miles because they had to use all the secondary roads in the country to avoid military clashes. After hearing that there was a school in France that would offer free education to Ukrainian refugees, the decision was made to go there.
Dina and Max traveled to Slovakia where they ditched their car to board a train and eventually arrived in France.
“Max’s mother is concerned that her son’s educational process has been disrupted and schools in Ukraine have been destroyed,” Hannesson told The Times. “If the war were to end tomorrow, there would still be no school available for his son.”
“She (Dina) is looking forward to taking him somewhere safe and peaceful for the next 6-12 months so he can continue his education,” Connie added. “The future is very undetermined at the moment, but depending on how the war goes, Dina is considering moving to a Ukrainian colony in Canada with Max.”
Connie said that thirty years ago, on August 24, her birthday, she and her children picked up their new Russian son and brother from the Grand Forks airport and that in August she could pick up a new Ukrainian grandson.
“Although I am very willing to take Max, I have shared with my Russian son that I think a family situation with siblings, constant activity and free-flowing conversation in various directions would be preferable to living in my home” , Connie continued. “My lifestyle is pretty boring for a 14 year old!”
Hannesson added that Dina and Max were fine with the foster family idea and Eugene offered to help with Max’s finances.
“There’s a woman halfway around the world who’s willing to send her only child to a town she’s never heard of, to live with a woman she’s never met – all based in the words of a friend she’s known for 20 years,” Hannesson explained. “We’re taking baby steps at this point – the one thing I’m sure of is that nothing is certain.”
If your family would like to house Max for the school year, please contact Connie at 218-281-1662 or 218-289-4366, or email [email protected].
Eugene’s experiences in Crookston and the United States
As previously reported, Eugene Vorobiev became part of Connie’s family after his son, Darby, traveled to Moscow, Russia as part of Minnesota’s 4-H cultural exchange program in August 1989. The Crookston Times published an article about the trip on July 24. , 1989 in which Connie saved. Crookston’s students, Darby Miller and Kevin Ramberg, both traveled to Russia for the exchange program and spent a few days in Moscow for orientation, then stayed at the member children’s homes of the “Central Pioneer Palace”, followed by a stay in a camp. where they met delegates from two other nations. This is where Darby met Eugene.
In 1990, Minnesota welcomed a group of young Russian pioneers, and Connie’s family took in Eugene.
“After his time at Crookston, we kept in touch with Eugene during the political upheaval and the breakup of the Soviet Union,” Hannesson explained. “Eugene served two years in the Russian Navy.”
In 1992, following what Hannesson called “a ton of paperwork”, Connie and her family were able to get Eugene, who was 20 at the time, out of the Soviet Union to attend school in the University of Minnesota Crookston. Connie had sparked a fundraising campaign to bring Eugene to Minnesota, which included the First American National Bank of Crookston’s first benefit fund for an international student. Mario Prada of UMN Crookston, former director of multicultural and international programs, helped secure a tuition waiver—one of two such waivers offered by UMC at the time.
The Times reported that Eugene was the first Russian student to attend university and only the third from the country to study in Minnesota.
“Government officials were terribly uncooperative about a single man leaving the country to attend school in the United States and there were in fact bribes (vodka) between Eugene’s father and a government official,” Connie continued. “From 1992 to 1995, Eugene resided in Crookston, worked at the college and the Irishman’s Shanty, the American Legion, and even the Minnesota State Highway Department while taking classes.”
While at Crookston, Eugene visited elementary school students and a special “Dollars for a Russian Scholar” event was held on December 2, 1992 at Highland Elementary School where people were able to meet Eugene, enjoy the Christmas tea and Russian sweets and contribute to her education expenses.
After completing his studies at UMC, from the late 1990s to the 2000s, Eugene worked at airports in Minneapolis, Denver and Miami, then transferred to St. Petersburg, Russia to work for Lufthansa Airlines. . In 2009 Eugene married Eugenia and they lived in Saint Petersburg for the next four years.
In 2011, Eugene and Eugenia flew to Minnesota to bring Connie back to Russia for what she calls “a fantastic and memorable two-week vacation.” A quote from Eugene in a 2011 article in The Times read, “Without Connie, my life would be totally different and I don’t know where it would be. My departure was here. Ahead of the 2011 trip to Russia, Eugene said he couldn’t wait for everyone to meet his “American mother.”
In 2012 or 2013, Eugene and Eugenia moved to Miami where they still reside and Eugene is employed by the airlines. He and his Siberian wife are both US citizens now, Connie said.
“I’m so proud of him; he’s done so well,” Hannesson boasted. “He’ll always be part of our family.”