Ukrainian Student Settling in at Our Lady of Grace Academy

Taya Kostochka (third from left) with her new friends in the 7th grade at Our Lady of Grace Catholic Academy in Gravesend, include (from left) Emily Perez, Maria Bavaro, Taya, Khadijah Siddiqui, and Gabriella Agostino. (Photo: Our Lady of Grace Catholic Academy)

GRAVESEND — On the morning of Feb. 24, Russia launched missiles and airstrikes on Ukraine’s capital city, Kyiv, forcing a mass evacuation that included Taisiya (“Taya”) Kostochka and her family.

Taya and her mother, Svitlana Kostochka, now live with relatives in Brooklyn. 

Before leaving the country, they returned to Kyiv to grab some items for their journey. But then they saw the destruction inflicted on their city.

They passed the front of Taya’s school, where nearly all the windows were gone — shocking for the 13-year-old, 7th grader. A quick tour inside revealed even more damage to classrooms and offices.

Taisiya Kostochka is known as “Taya” to friends back home in Ukraine (shown here). She now attends Our Lady of Grace Catholic Academy in Gravesend where she is making new friends. (Photo: Courtesy of Svitlana Kostochka )

“When Taya saw it, she got so upset,” her mother told The Tablet through an interpreter.

Taya was emotional again on May 11 upon arriving at her new school — Our Lady of Grace Catholic Academy in Gravesend.

“I like my new school,” she said through an interpreter. “Everyone is very friendly and kind. I am very happy.”

Mother and daughter have settled in Brighton Beach, next door to Gravesend. An acquaintance recommended Our Lady of Grace Catholic Academy as a school where Taya could enroll late in the school year.

“She loves it very much,” her mother said. “She has already made a lot of friends. She was even crying because she is not used to so much attention.”

Taya’s mother said they visited and immediately felt at ease in the atmosphere. Principal Kelly Wolf said she told the girl there was no rush to begin classes.

“I said, ‘You know, when you’re ready to come to school, our doors are open,’ ” the principal said. “We talked about what it would be like to go shopping in America, and, sure enough, that’s what she did. And the first thing she bought was a Catholic school uniform.

“The next morning, she and her mom showed up at my office door, and she was so excited she had a plaid skirt on because we have a plaid skirt. It doesn’t match exactly, but it will do.”

Wolf said the staff assigned a “buddy” classmate to help Taya acclimate.

“It ended up that she had three buddies because the whole group of girls wanted to be with her,” the principal said. “Needless to say, she’s been here ever since. She hasn’t missed a day.

Taya and her mother, Svitlana Kostochka, fled Kyiv, Ukraine after Russia invaded on Feb. 24. They’re living in Brighton Beach until they can finally return home. (Photo: Courtesy of Svitlana Kostochka )

“She’s so sweet and very innocent. She says very few English words, but she smiles a lot.”

Taya understands some English, which she has studied since the first grade. Also, the school’s Google Classroom software allows her to receive translations.

But her classmates eagerly help, too, Wolf said.

“There are several students in my building who speak Russian or a dialect of Russian that she understands,” Wolf said. “If they see that she’s not understanding, somebody who knows how to speak Russian will lean over and say it to her in her language.

“It’s just Catholic education — that caring dynamic that we’re known for.”

Taya’s father had to stay in Ukraine because of a law that says men ages 18-60 are needed in the country and can’t leave. His wife and daughter, meanwhile, are eager to reunite with him.

Until then, “It is not very safe for Taya to be in Ukraine right now,” her mother said. But for now, Taya is happy to be safe and among friends.

Taisiya Kostochka’s school in Kyiv was damaged extensively during the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (Photo: Courtesy of Svitlana Kostochka )