St. Athanasius Catholic Academy Takes in New Student After Mother and Son Flee War-Torn Ukraine

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By Jessica Easthope

For 5th graders at St. Athanasius Catholic Academy – it’s just another day of science and math problems. But 11-year-old Theodore Gaynullin’s problems have gone far beyond this classroom.

“I am afraid of the war [in] Russia, it’s dangerous, it was boom and ‘psshh’ when we were on the train,” he said.

This time two weeks ago, Theodore was walking with his mom Ellen and thousands of other Ukrainians through endless villages along the western border – hoping to make it safely to Poland – not knowing what the future would hold.

“It was a lot of hurt, and right now Russia is bombing on all of Ukraine. School is broken, home is broken, houses broken, in Ukraine people are dying and in Kyiv,” said Theodore.

“I was praying to escape from the country and I knew everything was very dangerous because no one knew what would happen next minute, next hour, maybe they would close the line,” Ellen said.

With just the clothes on their backs and one bag for both of them, Ellen and Theodore walked nearly 15 miles from Lviv to the border. Ellen, who lived in Brooklyn for 17 years, had one dream for her son. That vision kept her feet moving.

“I made the decision when Theodore was back in Kyiv. I made a decision when he’s back, I’m going to enroll him here. My friend asked me what school and I said this nice Catholic school,” she said.

St. Athanasius Principal Diane Competello says the school has welcomed Theodore with open arms.

“How could you say no? God sent them here. If we say we’re for everybody’s kids, that’s who we are,” Diane said.

Knowing that Theodore and Ellen have been through a lifetime of trauma, their new school and new church want to make their home in Brooklyn a safe haven.

“We offer them hope in the midst of conflict and we offer them the greatest gift, God’s love, which I’m sure they need right now,” said pastor, Msgr. David Cassato.

For now, Theodore says he’s excited to be living the life of a normal fifth grader – far away from the terrors of war – here he’s happy for it to be just another day.