Ukrainian refugee and her daughter find a home in Sewickley

When Russia started its war with Ukraine six months ago, Katerina Boyko thought it would be over in three days.

She could not have imagined that the war would still be raging half a year later, and that she and her 13-year-old daughter Alexa would end up living half a world away from their home city of Zhytomyr in Ukraine (about 86 miles north of Kyiv).

Looking relaxed on a maroon love seat in the living room of her host family in Sewickley, Boyko recalls that the day the war started, Feb. 23, she was on a Mexican island enjoying a long-awaited day off from her job as a musician on a cruise ship.

She and her husband Denis, a drummer, formed their own band and were hired by the Royal Caribbean Group. They had left their daughter back in Ukraine with Katerina’s mother and came to North America to work last November.

They were planning to use the money they earned to move to a new home in Kyiv. Their dream of relocating to the big city has been put on hold.

“Life was really exciting and I love the company and love my job,” Boyko said. “I love the American audiences because they are very grateful.”

Her relaxing day of sipping pina coladas on a picturesque Caribbean beach and hiking through Mayan Ruins was disrupted by the news that the Russians had begun bombing Ukraine. Frantically, she tried to call her daughter and mother.

“It was 4 am in Ukraine, so I knew that my daughter and mother were sleeping,” she said. “Because it is close to Kyiv and we have a bunch of military bases, Zhytomyr was also bombed on the first day. We were shocked. They were hiding in the basement. I was terrified because I couldn’t do anything.”

Realizing the war was not going to end in a matter of days, Boyko resigned from the company and immediately made plans to fly to Krakow to meet her daughter and mother, who were fleeing to Poland, while her husband continued to work on the cruise ship .

From Poland, Boyko, her mother and Alexa traveled to Germany. Both countries were crowded with Ukrainian refugees, so they moved on to the Netherlands to a refugees’ hostel.

Boyko said, tearing up, that she has gained an appreciation for the kindness of strangers.

“I realized how great and wonderful people are around the world,” she said. “Before I was just focused on my job and improvement and that’s all. I felt like I am an independent person, but then some tragedy happens and you understand that there are wonderful people who have helped all this way.

“I wrote to my husband and said ‘What have I done in my life that people have helped me so much?’ This war has changed me and maybe I can be helpful to everybody as well.”

After going from one temporary arrangement to another in Europe, Boyko and her daughter learned about an opportunity to come to America through a US government program called Uniting for Ukraine. She ended up seeing a Facebook post from Erica Kain in Sewickley saying that her family wanted to help a Ukrainian family. The Facebook group is called Helping Ukrainian Refugees in the USA.

Boyko wrote to Erica and told her about her background as a musician and vocal teacher and that she has a daughter who is an accomplished flutist.

The next day, Kain replied that they are also a musical family and that her oldest daughter, Amelia, also plays the flute.

“My initial inclination was to bring them over on a plane, right now,” said Erica. “I said ‘we’d like to sponsor you.'”

Boyko applied to the program and received a travel authorization a few days later. Through the program, they are eligible to stay in the US for two years.

In the meantime, Kain enrolled Alexa in Quaker Valley Middle School. She is already making friends.

Having to pack as many of her belongings as she could into one school bag the night before they left Ukraine for Poland and all the subsequent moving caused Alexa to lose her flute. When Erica found out about it, she got her a new one.

Katerina and Alexa Boyko arrived in Sewickley in mid-July and immediately felt at home with Erica, a German teacher at Central Valley High School and her husband Richard, who works for TriplePoint Public Relations, their three daughters, Amelia, Genevieve, and Caroline and springer spaniel Larry, who has become Boyko’s walking buddy. The Kains even threw a birthday party for Alexa, who turned 13 shortly after arriving here.

Boyko says she now feels like she’s found a home in America.

“I think it’s because of Erica and Richard and the girls,” she said.

As for the town of Sewickley, she says it was love at first sight.

“It seems like all of Sewickley was waiting for us. Best of all you can feel safe here and you can allow your daughter to go from this street to another street and you will not worry about it.”

For their part, the Kain family said they are enjoying having Katerina and Alexa staying with them.

“It’s been delightful. We thought it would be a smooth fit and it’s gone really smoothly,” said Richard. “They’ve been wonderful house guests. They walk the dog. Kate always offers to make food and our daughters get along. They play chess and Roblox.”

Erica said being able to help some Ukrainian refugees has nullified the feeling of helplessness she had when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began.

“It was so deeply upsetting and every day I would get more and more upset hearing all this news,” she said. “I finally had to remind myself that I cannot single-handedly stop this war. Then once we decided we could bring people over, it was this incredible feeling. Finally, I could do something.

She then looked over at Boyko and said, “When you guys arrived it triggered something in all of our neighbors. People can’t do enough. It’s nice of you to allow us to do something for you because it lifts that dark feeling of helplessness.”

Boyko has ventured into Pittsburgh to apply for a driver’s license and experience places like the National Aviary and the Carnegie Museums, and she’s already making connections with members of the area’s musical community. She said she’s impressed by how “open” Americans are compared to Europeans.

“People are very open. They are energetic. When I got off the plane and I met the (border control officials), I felt good vibes. I felt like I can find common language with this culture.”

Since arriving in the US, she has launched a music-sharing app called Smuzi. She developed it in Ukraine during the pandemic and it allows musicians to collaborate and record together remotely on their phones.

Alexa said although she misses her Ukrainian friends, she likes it here and is looking forward to participating in the band and in sports in the 8Th grade and that, as an aspiring movie actress, being in the US could be a boost for her career.

So, the question remains: with husband and father Denis soon to join them in Sewickley, will they stay in the US or do they plan to go back to Ukraine?

For now, Boyko said she has learned not to look too far ahead.

“I will do my best every day to live my life. I will find a good job and I will dedicate these years to Alexa and to her studies. I’m looking forward to starting a new life here in America with my husband and daughter. But I don’t want to be here just to survive. I want to be here to thrive.”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.