BELLE HARBOR — About a month ago, Eugene and Elizabeth Desyuk lived under the sounds of emergency sirens and slept in the corridor or basement of their Ukrainian home, fearful of an attack from Russian forces. On Monday, they were learning the alphabet and playing with toys alongside their new classmates at St. Francis de Sales Catholic Academy.
Monday marked their second full week at the school after arriving with their mother, Katerina Rodoman, in the United States on March 16 with the clothes on their backs and one suitcase between them. Ever since, the Belle Harbor community, and St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church, in particular, has rallied to make them feel at home.
“[Father Jim Cunningham] and the Church have helped us a lot as we came with one bag and we didn’t have anything,” Rodoman said through a translator. “This community simply struck me unrealistically. I did not expect such hospitality and such a [positive] attitude towards us.”
The family is from the western Ukraine city of Lviv. Rodoman remembers the city was shelled by Russian forces 18 days into the Russian invasion, prompting them to flee. They traveled from their home to Vienna, Austria, and from there flew to New York to stay with Rodoman’s mother-in-law in Far Rockaway, Queens.
When they arrived, Patrick Keane, who owns the apartment Rodoman’s mother-in-law rents and has grown to know the family over the years, called Father Cunningham and asked about St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church collecting donations for the family.
The response was overwhelming. They received physical items — clothes, toys, food, new bikes — to the extent that they had to redirect donations because they grew to be too much for one family. The church has raised $70,000 of aid for general Ukrainian relief, a portion of which will cover a year’s rent for the family once they find an apartment.
“I had to take the [donation request] post down because I couldn’t keep up with the responses,” Father Cunningham said. “I knew that when you put something out there in this neighborhood the response is always huge and immediate and it’s proven to be that.”
Father Cunningham added that people in the community now refer to them as “our family.”
“People come up and say ‘how is our family?’ That’s why I had to post the pictures of the bikes because everyone wants to know, how is our family? How are they doing? Like we feel responsible,” Father Cunningham said.
Meanwhile, Eugene, 6, and Elizabeth, 3, have found a sense of normalcy and routine as kindergarten and nursery students at St. Francis de Sales Catholic Academy.
“The children are very happy to be here. They really like going to school and my son even told me that he wants to stay here to live,” Rodoman said. “It’s a great school. They have fun here and I am very grateful to everyone who helped us get into this school and in general to everyone who helps us.”
Dr. Chris Scharbach, principal of St. Francis de Sales Catholic Academy, said once they sorted out the logistics of a start date, uniforms, and supplies, Eugene and Elizabeth’s enrollment was easy. He noted that “they’re welcome here as long as they need to be here.”
Rodoman said she doesn’t know how long they’ll be in the U.S., but noted that “as soon as it is safe there we will return.” Her husband had to stay in Lviv to work and help the army as a patrolman — as the Ukrainian government requires all men between ages 18 and 60 to stay and assist in the war. Her parents and grandmother are also still in Ukraine.
“We communicate via Skype, via video communication, every day,” Rodoman said. “Of course I want to go back because my relatives are there, but the children are safer here at the moment.”
On Sunday, April 3, Rodoman, Eugene and Elizabeth went to a special Mass for the persecuted Church in Ukraine led by Cardinal Timothy Dolan at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore and Archbishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, who is also the president of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, also attended.
The Mass was held at the initiative of Aid to the Church in Need-USA, who brought the family. Edward Clancy, director of outreach for the organization, said when he heard the family’s story he thought bringing them to the Mass was a “really good opportunity for them to feel part of New York, get to experience New York,” and meet Archbishop Gudziak and Cardinal Dolan.
Rodoman called the experience “amazing,” calling the atmosphere at the cathedral “magical.”
“Cardinal Dolan is a very positive person, and Archbishop Gudziak was from my city. They are very worried about the state of Ukraine,” Rodoman said. “Thank you very much for the opportunity to visit such a place and meet such people.”