When Russia invaded Ukraine and started its campaign of bombing civilian areas, Valleria Olkhovska and her husband had to make a decision: keep the family together or send their two boys, ages seven and 10, to Florida to live with their grandparents.
“Yes, it was very hard decision to leave Ukraine, because it’s our home,” Olkhovska said with difficulty in English. “It was hard but it’s my responsibility like mother, because now in Ukraine, it’s dangerous, not only dangerous, it’s very stressful for all of us, for parents, for kids.”
Olkhovska came to South Florida a month ago. Her sons have been in Sunny Isles Beach since the war started, going to public school in Miami-Dade County, and she is thrilled that they will be starting the new school year where they don’t have air raid sirens going off every day.
Olkhovska told NBC 6 that the Russians have deliberately destroyed hundreds of Ukrainian schools, and she thinks when the new school year starts there, the Russians will threaten schools again.
“It’s a form of terrorism, and she understands and everyone there understands that’s exactly what they’re doing by destroying the institutions of basically going to school and normal day-to-day life,” said Larisa Svechin, the former mayor of Sunny Isles Beach who was translating for Olkhovska.
There are dozens of Ukrainian refugee kids in South Florida, and they all are aware of what is going on back home.
“It’s really bad," said 10-year-old George Olkhovska. "If people dying, their family is crying about this."
It is tough on kids when they are uprooted and moved to a foreign country, but Valleria’s boys have made a swift adjustment to their new school. They are learning English and fitting in.
“I like this school, I like this country,” George said.
When asked if he would rather go back to Ukraine or stay in the U.S., he replied, "No, I want to stay here." When asked if it was because he feels safer in the U.S. George said "yes" without hesitation.
The family is still separated, with dad in Ukraine. The kids have gotten a crash course in international relations, and while everyone is hoping for an end to the war, Olkhovska, who is a psychologist, says her family and the entire country is forever scarred.
“It’s unbelievable, it’s a big trauma for all of us and it has changed us forever,” Olkhovska said.
Until they can go home, at least Olkhovska and her sons have a safe haven here.