After a 14-hour journey from Poland, two teen Ukrainian refugees landed at San Antonio International Airport on Tuesday, far away from the horrors of a war that has been devastating their hometown of Kyiv.

Sasha Kovalska, 15, and Bazhen Kovalskyi, 12, came to San Antonio to live with their uncle, Dmytro Kovalskyy, who had advocated for his family to escape Kyiv before Russia’s invasion.

Upon their arrival, the brother and sister received strong hugs from Kovalskyy and his two children, whom they had last seen in 2019 during a family trip to Ukraine.

“It is really important to show that there are people here who can support kids, who can support refugee families,” said Kovalskyy, who did not allow the children to be interviewed as they were tired and ready to be out of the spotlight.

“The most important thing is to fix the trauma they have now,” Kovalskyy said. “What most people don’t get is that it’s not only physical safety, but also the trauma they get during these days in Ukraine while bombing starts.”

Ivana Kovalska hugs her dad, Dmytro Kovalskyy, as Radomyr Kovalskyi holds a sign to welcome their cousins from Ukraine at San Antonio International Airport on Tuesday.
Ivana Kovalska hugs her dad, Dmytro Kovalskyy, as Radomyr Kovalskyi holds a sign to welcome their cousins from Ukraine at San Antonio International Airport on Tuesday. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

For now, Kovalskyy said the plan is for his niece and nephew to live with his family through the summer, but it would depend on how the war in Ukraine unfolds. His main focus for now, he said, was to help them adjust to their new lives with his family for as long as they’ll be staying. 

“For several days, they will be quiet and homesick,” Kovalskyy said.

When the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, Kovalskyy told his twin brother not to wait until Kyiv was bombed to send his family to live in San Antonio.

Kovalskyy said his brother, who joined the Ukrainian militia, was hesitant to send his family to the United States at first. After Russia began bombing Kyiv, and the children and their mother spent days in bomb shelters, they all applied for visas to come to the U.S. without their father, and eventually to San Antonio. 

Before that was possible, the family made their way to Poland to escape immediate danger. They were among thousands of Ukrainian families who also traveled to Poland seeking refuge. Once they arrived in Poland, the family lived in a small apartment for about a month, Kovalskyy said.

Now that his niece and nephew are in San Antonio, their mother and two younger brothers plan to reunite with their family here in four weeks. Until then, they are making living arrangements for the refugees’ grandmother in a long-term, safe area in Poland. His brother chose to remain in Ukraine to continue supporting the military. 

The people of Poland have been supporters of Ukrainians fleeing from war, and have set up shelters along the border, Kovalskyy said. Some volunteers pick up seniors and children from the border and transport them to where they’ll be staying in Poland. 

“We are all really thankful,” Kovalskyy said of the support Ukrainians have received from others. He said people from Berlin, France and friends in Europe have been volunteering in several ways to help Ukrainian refugees.

“We see incredible support from people all over the world, and this is why we are very thankful for that,” he said.

As the young refugees settle in San Antonio, Kovalskyy said his family is seeking support from organizations who can offer activities, such as summer camps, to distract his niece and nephew from the trauma they’ve experienced. 

More Ukrainian refugees will need similar services and resources when they arrive in the country, he said. 

“Other people, they are more stable, but for kids, it can be lifelong trauma,” Kovalskyy said. “We need to wipe out those memories and substitute it with good memories.”

 

Raquel Torres

Raquel Torres is the San Antonio Report's breaking news reporter. She previously worked at the Tyler Morning Telegraph and is a 2020 graduate of Stephen F. Austin State University.