U.S. students make connection with Ukrainian refugee children in Slovakia

Carrie Pearson, principal at St. Joseph School in Warren, Pa., holds the microphone as second-grader Landon Coppersmith asks a question during a Zoom session with a Ukrainian refugee family now in Slovakia. (CNS photo/Anne-Marie Welsh, Diocese of Erie)

by Anne-Marie Welsh

WARREN, Pa. (CNS) — Exactly one day after Russia began its unprovoked assault on Ukraine Feb. 24, Father Richard Tomasone, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Warren and its mission church, St. Luke in Youngsville, received a text message.

It was from Barbora Fabianova-Hajasova, a former Slovakian exchange student he had coached to a state basketball championship during the 2000-2001 season at Kennedy Catholic High School in Hermitage, Pennsylvania.

She and her husband, Brano, were considering taking in a refugee family. What did he think?

“I told her I thought it was wonderful,” Father Tomasone told EriE-news, the online newsletter of the Erie Diocese.

Emboldened, the young family cast aside concerns about politics and safety and opened their home and hearts to Olga and her two children, Ivan, 11, and Sasha, 9. Bojnice, Slovakia, the town where Barbora and Brano live, already has accepted close to 200 refugees.

Olga, left, with her two children, Sasha and Ivan, enjoy a March 18, 2022, Zoom encounter from Slovakia with students at St. Joseph School in Warren, Pa. Seated between the children is Barbora Fabianova-Hajasova, who with husband Brano welcomed the three to their home in Bojnice, Slovakia, after the family fled Ukraine to escape Russia’s war against their country. (CNS photo/courtesy Barbora Fabianova-Hajasova via Diocese of Erie)

It’s not that they don’t have means to help refugees. Barbora played professional basketball on the Slovakia national women’s team; Brano is a dentist. They have opted not to accept government assistance available to those taking in refugees.

Father Tomasone said Barbora is the kind of person who would have taken in refugees even if she had had to squeeze them into her home.

“She grew up behind the Iron Curtain,” he explained. “She understands crisis. She understands these people could lose everything.”

It took Olga, Ivan and Sasha three full days to travel the 800 miles from their home in Kyiv, Ukraine, by car, bus and train through Poland to western Slovakia. They left with one hour’s notice, grabbing birth certificates, passports, basic clothing and textbooks, struggling to keep their wits about them as bombs were falling nearby. They had no choice but to leave their husband and father behind to fight.

Even as compassion and sympathy overwhelm people across the world, it is impossible to comprehend the depth of the plight of the Ukrainians.

Barbora had thought she would take a photo of the family upon their arrival, but when the moment came, “it was too emotional because they finally knew they were safe,” she told Father Tomasone.

Once the priest began telling others about the situation, there was no stopping the desire to help. At the end of Masses the following weekend, he put out a small basket.

“I asked for prayers and invited people to donate if they wanted,” he said. A few days later, he was able to wire Barbora $5,266. Since that time, the total collected has surpassed $20,000.

When the first funds arrived, Olga and Barbora asked if they could share the donations with others in need.

“We just want to help refugees,” Father Tomasone told her.

Students at St. Joseph School in Warren, Pa., wave signs and artwork they made to greet their three new Ukrainian friends now in Bojnice, Slovakia, during a Zoom session March 18, 2022. Refugees Olga and her two children, Ivan and Sasha, escaped Russia’s war against Ukraine and found safety in the home of a Slovakian couple. (CNS photo/Anne-Marie Welsh, Diocese of Erie)

So, thanks to a connection first forged on a basketball court in Pennsylvania, desperately needed cash is now going directly from those making donations into the hands of people in dire need.

Included among future donations will be coins being collected at St. Joseph School. But the effort is about much more than raising funds.

“There’s always a little buy-in with a friendly coin challenge,” said Carrie Pearson, St. Joseph’s principal. “But the overall generosity has been really eye-opening for everybody. My message with the children is more about peace, prayer and thinking of ways to help others at this time. That is Christ’s message to us.”

As an educator, Pearson admits there is a fine line between creating awareness and not stoking fear in the students.

On March 18, she and Father Tomasone set up a Zoom connection between the entire school in Warren and Barbora, Olga, Ivan and Sasha in Slovakia.

The St. Joseph students opened with a song of peace, complete with hand gestures. They eagerly pulled out signs and drawings of the Ukrainian flag they had made, waving them in the air to make sure their new friends could see them.

Then representatives from each grade came forth to ask questions ranging from, “What were you able to bring with you?” to “Do you have family and friends who are still in Ukraine?”

Sasha and Ivan had received copies of the questions in advance and, with Barbora’s help, recounted some of their experiences, mostly in English. The fact that they’d had to leave their dog and cat behind resonated deeply.

Barbora and Olga wrapped their arms around Ivan and Sasha, providing encouragement as they shared not only their difficulties but also moments of respite, such as visits to the local zoo in Slovakia.

The students at St. Joseph erupted with enthusiastic applause when they learned that Sasha and Ivan were receiving good grades in math, biology and geography in the Slovakian school in which they already are enrolled.

Before the exchange ended, Father Tomasone offered a few words followed by a blessing.

“It is a long distance between us, but because we care for everybody, that love makes it a lot shorter,” he said. “So, we’re very close to you and we want you to know that we will continue to pray for you and for all the refugees from the Ukraine, that the war will end soon and that you can go back home and be reunited with your families.”

Barbora then said she had one more thing to share.

“Yesterday, Olga and her family told us that when the war is over, they will adopt a child from Ukraine,” she said. “They know that many, many children lost their parents. They don’t even know what’s going to happen, but they know they will take another child into their home. I think this is one of the biggest things I ever heard, you know?” she said, moved by the generosity at such a precarious time.

“It was a wonderful experience for my students,” Rita Cecco said as she herded her third graders back to the classroom following the encounter. “It makes it very real.”

“Seeing those children, you know?” she continued, shaking her head and looking upward with a quiet aside. “The heartbreak. We are blessed beyond words here.”

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