Column: From Kyiv to Palisades Charter High, a 14-year-old refugee starts over
Not that long ago, says 14-year-old Illia, “I woke up with the sound of rockets.”
His father is still home in Ukraine, defending his country against the Russian invasion.
His mother and little brother fled to Romania.
“I’m trying to call my family every day, but it’s not possible,” said Illia, who left Ukraine on a bus and kept going, landing in Los Angeles almost three weeks ago to stay with family.
On Monday morning, he enrolled at Palisades Charter High School.
“I see these kids, these teenagers here. It looks pretty good,” said Illia, who spent half a day registering at Pali and getting to know his way around a campus that sits on a perch above the ocean. Such a beautiful, tranquil setting for a young lad whose country is in flames.
Illia is taking P.E., biology, algebra, English and study skills. With his shaggy hair, loose athletic clothing and high-top sneakers, he looked like just another kid on campus. If he returns to Pali in the fall, he said, he wants to go out for the basketball team.
I asked if he knew how to surf.
“Like, on the sea?” he asked.
A number of Hollywood stars wore blue and gold in solidarity with Ukraine before the Oscars telecast paid tribute to the besieged country.
Exactly. Pali High does have a surf team. Illia said it’s a possibility.
Illia has a hyphenated last name, and when I asked how to spell it, he warned that it’s pretty long.
“May I write it?” he asked.
He took my notebook and pen and he spelled out Ishchenko-Leshchynskyi.
Ukranians have put up a valiant fight to defend their country against the merciless assault waged by despotic Russian President Vladimir Putin. Thousands are dead and millions have fled, running for their lives as cities and towns are destroyed.
I asked Illia why this is happening.
“In my opinion, Putin has an illness,” he said, “and he needs to kill the whole planet before he dies.”
When the war began, Illia said, some of his friends took up arms and he wanted to join them. His parents, who owned and operated a cosmetology clinic, wouldn’t let him. Along with Illia’s grandfather, they made arrangements to hustle Illia out of the country with other refugees on a 15-hour journey.
“There were Russian soldiers, Ukrainian soldiers, but we had this sign on our bus — KIDS — so it was less dangerous,” Illia said.
The plan was for Illia to meet up with a family friend in Romania, then make his way to the nearest airport and get on a plane headed for Los Angeles. His mother’s sister, Olena, who is from Ukraine, lives in West L.A. with her husband, Eugene Jang.
“My wife got a call from her sister in the middle of the night — that’s how urgent and last-minute this arrangement was — and asked if it was OK to send her son, who was trying to get to the Romanian border,” Jang said.
The price of a plane ticket soared as high as $14,000 around that time, Jang said. As they waited on something more reasonable, Illia spent a night in a business-class lounge at the airport, thanks to the hospitality of those trying to help Ukrainian refugees. When the prices came down, Illia’s aunt and uncle bought him a ticket and he flew first to Istanbul, then Los Angeles.
“When he first arrived I didn’t really pry, but he slowly has opened up about what he witnessed, and in all honesty, I think there’s a little bit of PTSD,” Jang said. “When he first came here he was having nightmares pretty much daily.”
Illia and Jang’s wife have been talking about the events in Ukraine, Jang said, “and they both think Putin is the devil incarnate.”
Jang said the business owned by Illia’s family was destroyed after they had sunk “practically every cent” into it. Their apartment still stands but much of the neighborhood has been shredded. Illia’s mother and little brother eventually left Ukraine for Poland, then Germany, and will soon be headed to Greece to stay with friends.
For all the trauma and heartbreak he’s endured, Illia told me he has long had a desire to move to the United States and study here. Two and a half years ago he visited California with a school group and toured UCLA and UC Berkeley in addition to meeting with his aunt and uncle in L.A.
But college is a long way off, and Jang, who is a college counselor and a tutor, began exploring high school options for Illia. Jang’s tutoring clients include the three children of Pali Charter High parent Lisa Woods, who helped sort things out.
Woods reached out to the school’s board members. Pali Charter Principal Pam Magee and L.A. Unified School Board member Nick Melvoin were looped into the conversation to see if the school could accommodate a refugee student with just two months left in the school year.
“There’s a feeling of compassion for our fellow humans who are dealing with so many things,” McGee told me in her office as Illia met with a counselor to determine what learning levels he was at and what classes he needed at Pali.
Meanwhile, Woods and her husband, Josh, have started a GoFundMe page to help support Illia and the rest of his family, along with Illia’s friends who have fled to other cities or are still on the ground in Kyiv.
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After he registered for his classes, Illia told me he worries about his dad every day.
“He’s in the most dangerous place,” he said.
I told Illia I can’t imagine what he’s going through, with his family splintered and in limbo, with no clarity as to when, or where, they might be reunited.
“It’s so sad, so scary. I hope my city, my Kyiv, won’t be destroyed. I hope for the whole of Ukraine. It’s a good country and we have an amazing president,” he said of Volodymyr Zelensky, who has won the world’s admiration for his brave stand against Putin.
In a world capable of such diabolical madness, Illia is appreciative of of simple acts of humanity. He said he feels grateful to family and friends who made it possible for him to be where he is now. There’s a lot to like about Los Angeles, he said.
“Weather, people, shopping, cars, ocean,” Illia said.
He also likes the Korean food, tacos and burritos. And he told me he was looking forward to his first full day of classes.
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