Children left Ukrainian shelter for safety in SA

When Alexandra Kowalska, 15, and her brother Bezen Kowalski, 12, woke up to the sound of sirens on the morning of February 24, they simply assumed it was the TV in the next room.

They thought that for their grandfather, who lived in their apartment in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv with their mother, the volume was too high.

Then they realized that their grandfather was still asleep and the sirens were too real, and warned the city that the Russians had opened with the threatened invasion. Even before the enemy was at the doorstep of Kyiv, night bombs forced the brothers to sleep in a subway station, then leave their home and country.

With their stepmother and two stepbrothers, they traveled to western Ukraine, then to Poland. The brothers arrived in San Antonio this week, where they now live with their aunt and uncle, Dmitry Kowalski and Wilzbeta Kowalska, and their cousins, Ivana Vardomir.

(Family names follow the Slavic tradition of male and female versions.)

Their stepbrothers and stepmother are still in Poland but are expected to follow them here in a few weeks. Their mother and grandfather remained in Kiev, which is now under repulsion from the shelling after the besiegers withdrew.

The sunny kitchen of their temporary home in Stone Oak probably seems far removed from the bloody war in their homeland that has attracted the world’s attention for the past two months.

As their uncle serves as an interpreter, the brothers recounted troubling days and nights in a capital city hit by advanced Russian forces, and how the family group was hastily boarded a train west to escape the fighting.

Before the invasion, they said, their parents tried to protect them from news of the accumulation of Russian troops on the eastern and northern borders of Ukraine – but they heard about it on the Internet, television and other sources.

After the attacks on Kyiv began, the family was sheltered at a nearby subway station, where they spent two horrific nights huddled together as the missiles exploded above them.

The Russians waited until nightfall to attack, Kowalski, the uncle, explained, in an effort to cause the demoralization of the civilians.

Dmitry Kowalski serves lunch to his family in San Antonio, which now includes his niece and nephew, who arrived earlier this week after fleeing a war in Ukraine.

Jessica Phelps

“They did the same thing in Syria,” he said, referring to Russian airstrikes against rebel forces during the 2015 Syrian civil war.

The situation was especially bad for their mother because their grandfather was disabled and could not leave the apartment – “so every night she would give him something to make him sleep and then come back the next morning to see if he was okay”, Elizabeth. Said Kowalska.

As conditions worsened, it was decided it was time for Alexandra (also known as Sasha), Bazen, their stepbrothers and stepmother to leave. Their mother chose to stay in Kiev with their grandfather.

Their father, a member of the Ukrainian militia, took them to the train station and managed to speed them through chaotic crowds – shouting, “A woman with four children!” – and put them on board without tickets.

The train car so crowded in a 14-hour drive to Lvov, the largest Ukrainian city close to the Polish border, Bazen had to stand most of the way. Complete strangers, or people they barely knew, gave them food, lodging and other help throughout the journey.

When they arrived at the train station in Lvov, for example, a woman they did not know offered them a ride to the home of a friend of a friend, who let them stay with her for several days.

Then, another friend with a car drove them to part of the way to the Polish border. They rode the bus the rest of the way, then had to cross the border itself.

After being taken to a Polish refugee center for processing, they stayed with another friend for several days, then moved to a small apartment in Tretsin, about 30 minutes from Warsaw, for about a month. During that time, their stepmother in Poland and Kowalski in San Antonio both worked on the phones to get them visas so they could fly to the United States.

On Tuesday, the brothers finally arrived in San Antonio, exhausted but happy, and were met at the airport by their cousins ​​in the U.S. with big hugs and a homemade welcome sign.

In the United States in just a few days, the brothers did not have time to process what they went through. Even at a young age, their emotions remain raw.

Their uncle refused to fully translate Bejan’s response when asked what he thought of the situation in Ukraine, other than to say it involved “word F”.

Alexandra for her part said her anger is starting to subside, especially as the two begin to settle into their new home, however temporary.

Ivana Kowalska, 15, hugs her father, Dmitry Kowalski, while her younger brother, Radomir Kowalski, 11, holds a sign welcoming their cousins ​​who arrived from Ukraine to San Antonio International Airport.

Ivana Kowalska, 15, hugs her father, Dmitry Kowalski, while her younger brother, Radomir Kowalski, 11, holds a sign welcoming their cousins ​​who arrived from Ukraine to San Antonio International Airport.

Jessica Phelps

“We have met with local schools and are working to enroll them in classrooms,” Kowalski said. “We do not want them to waste their time watching cartoons.”

Alexandra said she would consider staying in the U.S. permanently. Bazen said he misses his mother, grandfather, cat and friends too much and that he ultimately wants to return. | Twitter: @RichardMarini

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