American students connect with Ukrainian refugee children in Slovakia
by Anne-Marie Welsh
WARREN, Pa. (CNS) – Exactly one day after Russia began its unprovoked assault on Ukraine on Feb. 24, Father Richard Tomasone, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Warren and his mission church, St. Luke in Youngsville, received a text message.
It was from Barbora Fabianova-Hajasova, a former Slovakian exchange student whom he coached for a state basketball championship during the 2000-2001 season at Kennedy Catholic High School in Hermitage, Pennsylvania.
She and her husband, Brano, were considering hosting a refugee family. What did he think?
“I told him I thought it was wonderful,” Fr. Tomasone told EriE-news, the Erie Diocese’s online newsletter.
Emboldened, the young family put aside concerns about politics and security and opened their homes and hearts to Olga and her two children, Ivan, 11, and Sasha, 9. Bojnice, Slovakia, the town where Barbora and Brano live, has already agreed to close to 200 refugees.
It’s not that they can’t afford to help the refugees. Barbora played professional basketball for the Slovakia women’s national team; Brano is a dentist. They chose not to accept government assistance offered to those hosting refugees.
Father Tomasone said Barbora was the kind of person who would have taken in refugees even if she had to send them home.
“She grew up behind the Iron Curtain,” he explained. “She understands the crisis. She understands that these people could lose everything.
It took Olga, Ivan and Sasha three full days to travel the 800 miles from their home in kyiv, Ukraine, by car, bus and train through Poland to western Slovakia. They left with an hour’s notice, seizing birth certificates, passports, basic clothing and schoolbooks, struggling to keep a cool head as bombs fell nearby. They had no choice but to let their husband and father fight.
Even as compassion and sympathy engulf people across the world, it is impossible to comprehend the depth of the plight of Ukrainians.
Barbora had thought she would take a picture of the family when they arrived, but when the time came, ‘it was too emotional because they finally knew they were safe,’ she told Fr Tomasone .
Once the priest started telling others about the situation, there was no stopping the desire to help. At the end of the masses the following weekend, he takes out a small basket.
“I asked for prayers and invited people to donate if they wanted to,” he said. A few days later, he was able to wire Barbora $5,266. Since that time, the total raised has exceeded $20,000.
When the first funds arrived, Olga and Barbora asked if they could share the donations with others in need.
“We just want to help the refugees,” Father Tomasone told him.
So, thanks to a connection first forged on a basketball court in Pennsylvania, desperately needed money is now flowing directly from those who donate into the hands of those in need.
Future donations will include coins collected at St. Joseph’s School. But the effort goes far beyond fundraising.
“There’s always a small buy-in with a friendly coin challenge,” said St. Joseph’s manager Carrie Pearson. “But the overall generosity has been really eye-opening for everyone. My message with the children is more about peace, prayer and thinking about ways to help others at this time. This is Christ’s message to us.
As an educator, Pearson admits there’s a fine line between creating awareness and not instilling fear in students.
On March 18, she and Father Tomasone established a Zoom connection between the entire school of Warren and Barbora, Olga, Ivan and Sasha in Slovakia.
The St. Joseph students began with a song of peace, complemented by hand gestures. They eagerly pulled out signs and drawings of the Ukrainian flag they had made, waving them in the air to make sure their new friends could see them.
Afterwards, representatives from each class came up to ask questions ranging from “What were you able to bring with you?” to “Do you have family and friends who are still in Ukraine?”
Sasha and Ivan had received copies of the questions in advance and, with the help of Barbora, recounted some of their experiences, mostly in English. The fact that they had to give up their dog and their cat resonated deeply.
Barbora and Olga wrapped their arms around Ivan and Sasha, encouraging them as they shared not only their struggles but also moments of respite, such as visits to the local zoo in Slovakia.
The students of St. Joseph burst into enthusiastic applause when they learned that Sasha and Ivan had good grades in mathematics, biology and geography in the Slovak school in which they were already enrolled.
Before the end of the exchange, Father Tomasone said a few words followed by a blessing.
“There is a long distance between us, but because we care about everyone, this love shortens it a lot,” he said. “So we are very close to you and we want you to know that we will continue to pray for you and for all the refugees from Ukraine, that the war will soon end and that you can return home and be reunited with your families.
Barbora then said she had one more thing to share.
“Yesterday Olga and her family told us that when the war was over they would adopt a child from Ukraine,” she said. “They know that many, many children have lost their parents. They don’t even know what’s going to happen, but they know they’ll take another child home. I think that’s one of the most important things I’ve ever heard, you know? she said, moved by the generosity at such a precarious time.
“It was a wonderful experience for my students,” Rita Cecco said as she led her third-grade students back into the classroom after the meet. “That makes it very real.”
“Seeing those kids, you know? she continued, shaking her head and looking up with a silent aside. ” Heartache. We are blessed beyond words here.