This boy’s hometown in Ukraine was bombed. Now he’s graduating in Lake Placid
LAKE PLACID — On a cold, dark morning in late February of last year, a 14-year-old boy named Yehor woke up before sunrise at his home in Kharkiv, Ukraine.
“I woke up pretty early in the morning to do my homework because I like to do my homework in the morning,” Yehor explained, “and I heard strange sounds, which I had never heard before. They were rockets, I could hear rockets.”
Russian rockets were bombing his hometown, marking the start of the war in Ukraine. Yehor and his family fled their home and spent the next night at his grandmother’s house, where they thought they’d be safe. But Yehor remembers watching that night as fiery rockets flew over their neighborhood.
“I survived this night, but I learned that houses down the street were just destroyed,” said Yehor.
His school was also destroyed. At the time, Yehor was preparing for a national math competition. Math is Yehor’s favorite subject, but the war took that opportunity away from him. It also took away his safety and his childhood.
So his big brother Dan got to work, writing to schools in the US, looking for a spot for Yehor.
“The moment I got Daniel’s letter, it certainly pulled at my heartstrings,” said Bill Newman, head of admissions at the North Country School. “We got to find a way to make this happen.”
The North Country School, a junior boarding school in Lake Placid, issued Yehor a student visa and offered him a full ride. Yehor’s friends and family raised money for his plane ticket.
On Easter Sunday of last year, Newman drove five hours to Boston to pick Yehor up from the airport.
“I remember he had his older brother’s clothes on, so we had cuffs folded up to the knee, so it was obvious we needed to get him to a place where we could get him clothing appropriate for the Adirondacks,” Newman explained.
It took a lot of work by a community of people in Lake Placid just to get Yehor out of Ukraine and settled into school in the U.S. He’s one of more than a million young Ukrainians to be displaced by the war.
After he was settled in at the North Country School, Yehor said it took a while for it to feel like a place where he could learn and grow.
“In the start, it was really hard,” said Yehor. “I didn’t know any English and I couldn’t communicate with people, I couldn’t do my homework properly because I just couldn’t understand what was going on, but North Country School has offered me many opportunities.”
The North Country School has a working farm on the campus. Students help raise sheep and chickens, which they later harvest for food.
On a recent cloudy spring day, Yehor walked into the barn and picked up a little gray cat named Mercury. “He’s a barn cat,” Yehor explained.
“He’s a really friendly cat and he loves people and animals.”
Erica Burns, barn manager at the North Country School, believes that involving students in animal care and requiring them to do barn chores teaches them important lessons.
“It teaches kids how to do hard things, how to do things with consistency, and how to be responsible,” said Burns. “I think Yehor has also come to this conclusion a lot faster than a lot of people, his love and appreciation for the barn.”
Yehor loves riding and grooming the school’s horses and spending time with the barn animals. Growing up in the second largest city in Ukraine, Yehor said there’s no way he could have imagined his life today in rural, Upstate New York.
“I never thought that I would change water for the sheep, give them grain or milk the goat, because I have milked the goat and it’s pretty hard,” said Yehor.
Over the last year, Yehor has proven he can do hard things — he’s learned English, taken AP calculus, and gone mountain biking. “Also I have learned how to ski,” said Yehor, “and Bill Newman was one of my teachers who taught me this, and it was amazing.”
The head of admissions took him to Whiteface, where Yehor said he skied black diamond trails. He’s also had a host family take him on vacation, and he’s spent time with a few other Ukrainians in the Lake Placid area.
As the war in Ukraine rages on, Yehor says he tries not to think about it too much, it’s too hard.
“I miss my family,” said Yehor. “My mother came to visit me during this summer, but I have not seen my father, I have not seen my grandparents, which is really sad.”
But Yehor, who is now 15 years old, has found a way to keep going. He’s got a full ride to another boarding high school in New York, where he’ll start this fall, and then wants to go to college in the U.S.
Eventually, though, Yehor wants to move back home to Ukraine. “I hope that I can start an anti-war organization. Also, I’m thinking to volunteer to help with other global issues such as climate change.”
Yehor has big, grand plans. But first, he’s focused on the summer. After he graduates today from the North Country School, Yehor hopes to travel back home to Ukraine to visit family, for the first time in more than a year.