Family flees Ukraine chaos; finds peace in Bensonhurst
BENSONHURST — You’ll never complain about a long walk again after hearing the story of 11-year-old Theodore Gaynullin and his mother, who traveled 15 miles — on foot — to the Polish border to flee war-torn Ukraine.
Their harrowing, 5,000-mile journey has brought them to Bensonhurst, where Theodore is enrolled at St. Athanasius Catholic Academy and is adjusting to life back in America after living for the past few years in Kyiv.
“It was dangerous. Bombs went off,” Theodore said, recalling the escape from Ukraine.
“We are so happy to be here,” Ellen Caravan, Theodore’s mother, said on Wednesday during an interview at the academy. Theodore’s first day at St. Athanasius was Monday, March 14.
“He fit right in right away,” Principal Diane Competello said. Not only that, but he has proven to be a popular student. “And I noticed during the first lunchtime, I was watching what’s going on, and everybody’s talking to him at the lunch table.”
For someone so young, Theodore has done a great deal of traveling. Caravan, who was born and raised in Ukraine, moved to the U.S. 17 years ago. She was living with her son in Bensonhurst, where Theodore was attending P.S.100. Three years ago, a tense family situation led her to send Theodore to Ukraine to live with relatives while she remained in Bensonhurst.
But when talk of a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine heated up last month, Caravan left the U.S. and flew to Ukraine to bring her son back. To her surprise, he was reluctant to leave. “He wanted to wait until the end of the school year,” she recalled.
Everything changed on Feb. 24, when the first Russian tanks entered Ukraine. “It was 6 a.m. and my father [who lived in Kyiv] called and told me, ‘It’s war,’ ” she said.
Caravan packed a bag with a change of clothes for her and Theodore — nothing else. She didn’t have time to panic. “I was just thinking we have to get out of here,” she recalled.
Caravan and Theodore managed to squeeze onto a packed train bound for Lviv, a city in the western part of the country that is closer to the Polish border. Once in Lviv, they hired a driver and tried to get to the border. There were so many people fleeing at the same time, the roads were nearly impassable. It took more than three hours just to travel a quarter of a mile.
That’s when Caravan made a bold decision. She and Theodore would walk to the border. At that point, mother and son were 15 miles away.
“Theodore was tired and we were frightened,” she recalled. They had no food. She noticed that many other families were on foot, too, and pointed that out to her son. “I told him, ‘Theodore, there are four- and five-year-olds walking. You can do it,’ ” she said.
They made it to the border in five hours. The line at the border crossing was long but once they got into Poland, Caravan felt a weight lift off her shoulders.
“Everything was so different. There were volunteers there asking if we needed anything,” she recalled.
They needed a hotel room. However, all of the rooms were booked. A stranger took them in. The woman had a friend with a dog and suggested to Caravan that they stay with the friend because it would be good for Theodore to have a dog to play with.
After a few days, Caravan and her son traveled to Warsaw, where, after several failed attempts to book a flight to New York, they finally boarded a plane to the U.S.
They arrived in New York on March 2. One of the first things Caravan did was enroll Theodore in St. Athanasius Catholic Academy. “I wanted him to go to this beautiful Catholic school,” she said.
Msgr. David Cassato, pastor of St. Athanasius Church, said every effort was made to ensure that Theodore had a smooth transition to his new environment. “The principal and the teacher met with the mother beforehand,” he said.
Theodore is enjoying his new school, where he is in a fifth-grade class. His favorite subject is math.
After worrying about bombs, mother and son are reveling in being able to live a normal life. “It’s quiet here,” Caravan said. Still, she constantly worries about her relatives still living in Ukraine. “It’s not safe,” she said, adding that she keeps in frequent touch with them.
St. Athanasius is only too happy to be playing a role in helping families heal from a war-torn region, said Msgr. Cassato, who is also the vicar for Catholic schools for the Diocese of Brooklyn, said the academy is willing to accept more Ukrainian evacuees if necessary.
“We offer stability in the midst of chaos in their lives. We offer them hope in the midst of such conflict,” he said. “We offer them probably the greatest gift of all — God’s love.”