When Russia started its war with Ukraine six months ago, Katerina Boyko thought it would be over in three days.
She could not have imagined that the war would still be raging six months later and that she and her 13-year-old daughter, Alexa, would end up living halfway around the world from their hometown of Zhytomyr in Ukraine (at about 86 miles north of Kyiv).
Looking relaxed on a brown loveseat in her host family’s living room in Sewickley, Boyko recalls that on the day the war started, February 23, she was on a Mexican island enjoying a long-awaited day of her work as a musician. on a cruise ship.
She and her husband Denis, a drummer, formed their own band and were hired by Royal Caribbean Group. They had left their daughter in Ukraine with Katerina’s mother and came to work in North America last November.
They planned to use the money they earned to move to a new house in Kyiv. Their dream of moving to the big city has been put on hold.
“Life was really exciting and I love the company and I love my job,” Boyko said. “I love the American public because they are very grateful.”
His relaxing day sipping pina coladas on a scenic Caribbean beach and hiking Mayan ruins was disrupted by news that the Russians had begun bombing Ukraine. Frantically, she tried to call her daughter and her mother.
“It was 4 a.m. in Ukraine, so I knew my daughter and my mother were asleep,” she said. “Because it’s close to Kyiv and we have a bunch of military bases, Zhytomyr was also bombed on the first day. We were shocked. They were hiding in the basement. I was terrified because I couldn’t do nothing.
Realizing that the war was not going to be over in a few days, Boyko resigned from the company and immediately planned to fly to Krakow to meet his daughter and mother, who were fleeing to Poland, while her husband continued. working on the cruise ship. .
From Poland, Boyko, his mother and Alexa traveled to Germany. Both countries were crowded with Ukrainian refugees, so they moved to the Netherlands to a refugee hostel.
Boyko said, in tears, that she had gained an appreciation for the kindness of strangers.
“I realized how truly great and wonderful people are in the world,” she said. “Before, I just focused on my work and improving, and that’s it. I felt like an independent person, but a tragedy happens and you understand that there are wonderful people who have helped all this way.
“I wrote to my husband and said, ‘What have I done in my life that people help me so much?’ This war has changed me and maybe I can also be useful to everyone.
After moving from one temporary arrangement to another in Europe, Boyko and his daughter learned that it was possible to come to America through a US government program called Uniting for Ukraine. She ended up seeing a Facebook post from Erica Kain in Sewickley saying her family wanted to help a Ukrainian family. The Facebook group is called Helping Ukrainian Refugees in the USA.
Boyko wrote to Erica and told her about her journey as a musician and voice teacher and that she has a daughter who is an accomplished flautist.
The next day, Kain replied that they were also a musical family and that his eldest daughter, Amelia, also played the flute.
“My initial inclination was to get them on a plane, right now,” Erica said. “I said ‘we would like to sponsor you.'”
Boyko applied to the program and received travel authorization a few days later. Through the program, they are eligible to stay in the United States for two years.
In the meantime, Kain has enrolled Alexa at Quaker Valley Middle School. She is already making friends.
Having to pack as much of her stuff as possible into a school bag the day before they left Ukraine for Poland and all the subsequent moves caused Alexa to lose her flute. When Erica found out, she bought him a new one.
Katerina and Alexa Boyko arrived in Sewickley in mid-July and immediately felt at home with Erica, a German teacher at Central Valley High School and her husband Richard, who works for TriplePoint Public Relations, their three daughters, Amelia , Geneviève and Caroline and springer spaniel Larry, who became Boyko’s walking companion. The Kains even threw a birthday party for Alexa, who turned 13 shortly after arriving here.
Boyko says she now feels like she has found a home in America.
“I think it’s because of Erica, Richard and the girls,” she said.
As for the town of Sewickley, she says it was love at first sight.
“It looks like all of Sewickley was waiting for us. Even better, you can feel safe here and you can allow your daughter to move from this street to another and you won’t care.”
For their part, the Kain family said they appreciate Katerina and Alexa staying with them.
“It was delicious. We thought it would be a good fit and it went really well,” Richard said. “They were wonderful hosts. They walk the dog. Kate always offers to cook and our girls get along well. They play chess and Roblox.
Erica said being able to help some Ukrainian refugees reversed the feeling of helplessness she had when the Russian invasion of Ukraine began.
“It was so upsetting and every day I was getting more and more upset hearing all this news,” she said. “I finally had to remind myself that I can’t stop this war on my own. Then once we decided we could bring people in, it was this amazing feeling. Finally, I could do something .
She then looked at Boyko and said, “When you arrived, it sparked something with all of our neighbors. People can’t do enough. It’s nice of you to allow us to do something for you, because it takes away that dark feeling of helplessness.
Boyko has ventured to Pittsburgh to apply for a driver’s license and check out places like the National Aviary and the Carnegie Museums, and she’s already connecting with members of the area’s music community. She said she was impressed by the way Americans are “open” to Europeans.
“People are very open. They are energetic. When I got off the plane and met the (border control officers), I felt good vibes. I felt that I could find a common language with this culture.
Since arriving in the United States, she has launched a music sharing app called Smuzi. She developed it in Ukraine during the pandemic and it allows musicians to collaborate and record together remotely on their phones.
Alexa said that although she misses her Ukrainian friends, she is enjoying herself here and is looking forward to participating in the group and sports at 8e grade and that, as an aspiring movie actress, being in the United States could be a boost for her career.
So the question remains: with husband and father Denis soon to join them in Sewickley, will they stay in the United States or do they plan to return to Ukraine?
For now, Boyko says she’s learned not to look too far ahead.
“I will do my best every day to live my life. I will find a good job and dedicate these years to Alexa and her studies. I can’t wait to start a new life here in America with my husband and daughter. But I don’t want to be here just to survive. I want to be here to thrive.