SWAMPSCOTT — What do you bring with you if you’re a 7-year-old boy who has to flee your home in Kyiv and hide underground from the bombs? When all you can take is one backpack?
Here’s what Nikita Suvorov took: Snacks. A water bottle. His iPad. And one book. (About Minecraft, the video game.)
Nikita, who flew into Boston’s Logan Airport last Wednesday night with his mother, Svitlana Koren, has been through a lot since Feb. 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine.
Saying goodbye to his father who stayed behind to fight. Spending a week in a dim and dingy basement beneath the streets of Kyiv, with about 30 other mothers and children, and “no toilet, no second exit,” his mother said.
Making their way to Germany on an overcrowded, filthy train from Lviv, Ukraine to Przemysl in southeastern Poland. It broke down along the way.
And now, flying across an ocean with his mother to start a completely new life in a tranquil seaside community called Swampscott, with relatives whom he’s never met. They will be living with Svitlana’s uncle Sergey Koren, a Ukranian Jew who moved to the North Shore 20 years ago; Koren’s wife Gaiane; and the couple’s five children, ranging in age from 8 to 28. His great-grandparents, Feliks and Lyudmila Koren, who left Ukraine in 1999 and settled in Lynn – live nearby.
Soon he will start elementary school in a language he partially understands but can’t yet speak.
Svitlana and Nikita are among the 6.6 million refugees who’ve left Ukraine since the beginning of the war, and among the approximately 6,000 Ukrainians who, as of early May, had been granted legal authorization to enter the U.S. and stay with Americans agreeing to support them, through a federal program called Uniting for Ukraine.
“When we heard they opened a program for refugees we didn’t even make a decision. We just filled out the application,” said Sergey, a network engineer at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Within “two or three weeks,” approval was granted.
“My heart was breaking for all the people who are trying to survive,” said Gaiane, a concert pianist. “I needed to find a way to bring them here.”
She found a way, and immediately was met with an outpouring of community support. “We couldn’t imagine how much help we would get from Swampscott,” Gaiane said. Families and town employees dropped off clothes, school supplies, a bike for Nikita. The Jewish Community Center of the North Shore in Marblehead offered Svitlana and Nikita membership, and a spot for Nikita at Camp Simchah this summer, should he wish to attend.
“They may be needing an escape from the horrors of what they are dealing with,” said the JCC’s executive director Marty Schneer. “We do everything we can.”
The Korens are part of the Chabad community on the North Shore, and Gaiane reached out to Rabbi Sruli Baron, director of the Tobin Bridge Chabad to ask if he could get a scholarship to attend Camp Gan Israel of the North Shore in July. “We took this seriously,” said Baron, who arranged for a full scholarship. “We have been doing a lot as a community for Ukraine, but here it has come home.”
Nikita will attend the Clarke Elementary School in Swampscott which already has “a significant number of students” who came from Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Moldova prior to the invasion, said school principal Mary Beth Shea. All are given additional academic help.
At the airport last week, the Korens waited anxiously for them at the Arrivals gate of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Svitlana texted that they were delayed because of paperwork and fingerprinting. About two hours after the plane touched down, they came through the gate, Svitlana looking weary but relieved, pulling a single suitcase. Nikita carried a backpack, and sprinted down the moving walkway.
They arrived home in the dark, exhausted. (It was the house with the blue and yellow flag of Ukraine outside.) Not till morning would they be able to see the blue and yellow flower pots outside. There were blue and yellow balloons too, and in the bedroom that had been freshly painted for them, a painting of flowers, in yellow and blue, created for them by Tamara Wolfson, a Swampscott artist from Ukraine.
By 11 a.m., Nikita was deeply immersed in video games in the Korens’ living room with their 8- and 10-year-old sons George and David, who technically are Nikita’s uncles. Feliks and Lyudmila looked on with delight.
Svitlana, 31, is very thin and said she was jetlagged. She’d met Sergey before, and knew her grandparents, but everything else was unfamiliar.
She speaks Ukrainian, Russian, and some English, and answered some questions about their life in Ukraine and their nearly four-month ordeal.
She has a master’s degree in chemical engineering, and before the war worked as a publisher of children’s educational material. She doesn’t know what she will do now.
The war did not come as a surprise, and she and her husband Andrey tried to prepare for where she and Nikita would go. There are only a limited number of bomb shelters in Kyiv, so they fled to a basement beneath a relative’s apartment since it was the nearest underground space, with provisions. (How did she know this? There is a phone app, “where people can choose the closest basement.”)
Nikita kept himself busy in the shelter with his iPad. (Wi-fi routers had been installed.) He wore headphones which helped to block out the sound of the air raid sirens.
She has been able to stay in touch with her husband by phone.
Nikita answered a few questions too and his mother translated.
He’s excited to be here. He loves to play chess.
He already saw the playground of his new school. Did he like it? He whispers the answer to his mom, who bursts out laughing. “He said, ‘I don’t know my final decision.”
Svitlana shows some photos she took after Russian invaded, including a disturbing one of the packed train they were on from Lviv, Ukraine to Poland, an image so vivid it brings to mind images of World War ll.
She said the train broke down, for hours, but there was no explanation; the passengers just waited. An elderly man in the photo holds his head, seemingly weeping. Two young girls, possibly sisters, huddle together in sleep. Teenagers, who apparently have no seats, stare at their cell phones.
Svitlana said the questions were becoming too hard for her to answer.
The Korens had arranged for a distraction for them, spending the weekend at Jookender Family Camp Palmer. Jookender is a community organization serving the Russian-speaking Jewish families in Greater Boston, and more recently, Ukrainians who have fled the war zone.
“Those who come, they’ve seen stuff you’d never wish on your enemy,” said the camp’s executive director Sasha Grebenyuk. “I know one family – a father and daughter – who saw their mom being killed in front of them, by Russian soldiers.”
The camp was “good,” Gaiane said in a brief phone call on Sunday as they returned from Palmer. Everyone was exhausted, she said.
It was unclear whether they had heard yet that Russia struck Kyiv again that day, for the first time in more than a month.
Linda Matchan can be reached at email@example.com