Artem is 5 years old and a ball of energy. He jumps on his mother’s lap as she sits on a couch in the living room of their Gregory Street home. She half cradles him, and he brings his face really close to Oxana’s for a nose-to-nose kiss.
He is Oxana’s entire world, and the tender exchange showed the strong maternal bond that the two have forged together – one that has perhaps intensified under extraordinary and harrowing circumstances.
No place for children
Roughly 10 months ago, the pair was surviving in a war-torn Ukraine, living in and out of overcrowded Kyiv basements that doubled as makeshift bomb shelters as Russia attacked their country. Artem’s father stayed behind to fight.
“It was no place for anyone, especially children,” said Oxana. “We made our way to the train station because I heard they were taking people to Western Ukraine.”
They needed to get to Lviv, the largest city in the western part of Ukraine, before they crossed the border into Poland. The pair arrived at a Kyiv station platform to find a panicked mass of shoulder-to-shoulder refugees rushing to board an evacuation train.
“There was so many people. Artem was crying,” Oxana said. “Everyone wanted to save their lives.”
Oxana and Artem were briefly separated from each other, and she said she will always remember the young man who grabbed her son and reunited them.
Kyiv to Lviv was a half-day’s journey. Conditions aboard the evacuation train were stifling, cramped and tight. People stood in aisles, sat in every available seat and squeezed into vestibules. No one slept, Oxana said, as the train chugged along, often at a snail’s pace to protect passengers from Russian shelling or firing.
“There was 13 of us in a space [usually reserved] for four people,” she said.
The train inched along under the cover of night.
“It was awful,” she said. On top of it all, Artem had COVID – and Oxana was coming down with a case herself.
‘Truly a worldwide effort’
Ukraine’s population stood at 44 million prior to Russia’s invasion. Since February, 7.8 million have fled Ukraine and 7 million have been displaced inside the country, according to the United Nations. A cumulative total of 200,000 soldiers have been killed, 100,000 from Ukraine and 100,000 from Russia. These numbers do not include the 40,000 civilian casualties.
“This is a war that’s pretty black and white,” Congressman Seth Moulton told the Marblehead Current. “It’s pretty black and white between right and wrong, between freedom and oppression, between democracy and autocracy.”
He added, “There are a lot of people in Ukraine who are comparing [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to Hitler, and I think that’s a very apt comparison.”
Moulton’s office has helped pair several Ukrainian refugees with 6th Congressional District families, including Oxana and Artem in Marblehead, working with Uniting for Ukraine as well as The New American Association of Massachusetts.
“This is truly a worldwide effort,” said Moulton, who visited Poland and Ukraine with a congressional delegation in early December. “Support that we see here at home is the same support that we see in places like Poland, where frankly, they’re doing a lot more than even we are to house Ukrainians.”
He described the stream of refugees entering Poland as “constant.” Poland has accepted 2.5 million Ukrainian refugees compared to roughly 25,500 in the United States in 2022, according to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
A birthday present
Oxana and Artem stayed with a friend for a night when the train arrived in Lviv. The next day they caught a bus from Lviv to Warsaw. When they crossed the Ukrainian-Polish border, relief washed over Oxana.
“When we get to Warsaw, I just got a hotel,” she said, adding they were absolutely exhausted after weeks of not knowing what their future would hold and living unrelentingly in harm’s way. “We feel safe, but I got sick. My temperature goes up.”
Their hotel stay lasted two weeks before Oxana, seeing the growing refugee crisis in Poland, charted out a plan to get to the United States. They flew from Warsaw to Spain and Spain to Mexico, and then they entered the United States via a port near California. Oxana had their JetBlue tickets for a flight from San Diego to Boston, but her credit card stopped working. The company waived their carry-on and luggage fees.
Once in Boston, Artem met his paternal grandparents for the first time, but they reside in a one-bedroom apartment in Lynn. A Gregory Street family wishing to remain unnamed adopted the two refugees, giving them the entire third floor of their home.
“We arrived on April 20,” said Oxana. “April 21 is his birthday, so it is like coming here was his birthday present.”
A hearty ‘ta-da’
Like Afghanistan refugees over the years, Marblehead embraced Oxana and Artem. The YMCA has provided free gym membership, and Artem takes gymnastics there on the weekend. Marblehead Children’s Center has provided Artem with free tuition and language support since they arrived. The National Grand Bank opened a checking account for Oxana. Artem has come home to find boxes teeming with toys and books waiting for him at the front door.
Gregory Street neighbor Kim Barrows supplied rides to Stop-&-Shop and the Y, where Artem enrolled in what Oxana called “American daycare.” Once a week, he attends a Swampscott daycare where the kids speak Russian and Ukrainian.
“I’ve really enjoyed getting to know them,” Barrows said, adding their presence made the war, in some ways, more tangible. “It’s been interesting just kind of seeing in person the whole situation that you see on the news and, you know, feeling so sorry for these people.”
She spoiled Artem for a period when she learned he liked chocolate muffins.
“Every time, I went to a Stop & Shop, I would buy them and then bring them over,” she said.
Another neighbor, Alexia Kearney, and her family put up a huge Ukrainian flag and blue and yellow bunting on their home before Oxana and Artem arrived. They positioned it so the mother and son could see it from their apartment window, and Oxana reports that Artem would look at it every night before bed.
“We couldn’t fathom how challenging it would be to leave your homeland and come here,” said Kearney. “We wanted to show support but give them privacy. Slowly but surely we built a relationship, and they would come over here during the summer.”
She added, “We brought toys and a gym set to them because we didn’t know how comfortable they’d be leaving the house.”
Barrows and Kearney called Oxana a strong, resilient mom. Artem, who is learning English, is quite gregarious. A language barrier exists, but that doesn’t get in his way. He has a zest for life, and he remains resolute in striking up friendships.
He loves showing off his artistic creations. Whether it’s the colored-in letters of his name taped to the door to his room or his handmade ornaments populating the Christmas tree, he introduces each with a hearty “ta-da.”
For requested privacy, the Marblehead Current is withholding Oxana‘s last name.