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Displaced by war, Ukrainian teenager finds home in San Francisco

As dawn broke on Feb. 24, explosions rocked Ukraine. After months of massing its troops on the border, Russia had just invaded.

Missiles rained down on cities across the country. Millions of Ukrainians fled their homes. 

Since then, more than 7 million people have sought refuge abroad, mostly in Europe.

Among them is Yura Polishchuk, a 13-year-old boy who enjoyed an idyllic life of school, soccer and piano lessons before the war. But unlike most child refugees from Ukraine, he fled alone.

Yura Polishchuk spends time after school at Golden Gate Park's Big Rec Field in San Francisco on Nov. 16, 2022. | Mike Kuba/The Standard

Unable to travel with his son due to restrictions on military-age men leaving the country, Yura’s father sent him across the border in March with a group of volunteers. That set the boy on an odyssey that took him through parts of Europe, over the ocean and across the United States.

It’s a journey that only ended this summer when he arrived in San Francisco.

Yura is just one of nearly two-thirds of Ukrainian children who were forced to flee their homes by Russia’s invasion, according to United Nations data. But his is not just a story of displacement: It’s also about the bonds that are built when ordinary people offer a helping hand to those in need.

In San Francisco, Yura found a home with Jane and Stas Yurkevich and their two children, who answered a call to host him.

Saying goodbye to his parents was “super hard—more hard than to see the war, the bombings,” Polishchuk told The Standard in English, a language he’s still working to master. 

He said he longs to return home to Ukraine. But he now feels meeting the Yurkeviches was “mega luck.”

“I wasn’t ready for them to be so cool,” he said. “I’m glad I’m living with them.”

Unexpected Attack

Like many Ukrainians, Yura never expected war to touch his peaceful life in Kyiv. 

On the morning of Feb. 24, he said his father and grandmother awoke him and told him that Russia had invaded. It was difficult to comprehend.

“I was shocked, but I didn’t realize how bad it is,” Yura told The Standard. “So I was kinda glad that I’m not going to school.”

Yura, his father and his grandmother spent the first days of the war sheltering from Russian airstrikes in their basement. His mother—his parents are divorced—was in an even worse predicament. Like many Kyivans, she was spending her nights hiding in the subway station, one of the few safe places.

Yura and his father, Viktor, in Ukraine before the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, 2022. | Courtesy Yura Polishchuk

The sounds of shelling were frequent and fighter jets flew low over the city, causing houses to shudder. Uncertainty reigned in the Ukrainian capital. 

Once, when Yura ventured out with a friend to walk their dogs, they saw a man wearing a white band around his arm. They didn’t think much of it at the time. Later, they saw on the news that this person was likely a Russian operative, sent to help undermine Ukrainian defense or even plant bombs in the city. 

Those early days of the war were extremely scary, Yura says. 

“I felt like I would die in like two minutes,” he said. “I thought that this was my last minutes, because you never know what’s going to happen next.”

Eventually, his father made a difficult decision: He would send his son abroad, where he would be safer and could continue his education in peace. But with no airlines flying to Ukraine, the challenge was getting him there.

He arranged for volunteers to take his son to Europe and put him on a plane to New Jersey, where they had relatives. Then, they headed west to the Hungarian border.

It’s a memory Yura will never forget. Before crossing into Hungary on March 12, he looked back and saw his father in tears.

“My father—I didn’t see him crying before. That was super emotional,” Yura said. “I just looked at him, and then I went to the border.”

From Tashkent to San Francisco

When the war began, not all the refugees stayed in Europe. 

Some Ukrainians traveled to Mexico and attempted to cross the land border and seek shelter in the United States. Russians fleeing the increasingly totalitarian regime of President Vladimir Putin did the same, hoping to receive political asylum. A refugee camp formed in the city of Tijuana. Volunteers rushed to their aid.

Among them were Jane and Stas Yurkevich. They had been shocked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and wanted to help.

Jane and Stas Yurkevich pose for a photo with Yura and their son and daughter, Niki and Dasha. | Courtesy Jane Yurkevich

The couple had come to the United States in the early 1990s as refugees from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, a country that had recently gained independence from the Soviet Union. They understood the experience of being a refugee, spoke Russian and knew the challenges of adapting to a new country well.

Through their work in Mexico, they got connected to the volunteer community.

When they returned home, they held fundraisers for Ukraine in their local community, helped refugees find housing in San Francisco and even co-signed their leases to help them get on their feet.

Then, one day, they saw a message in an online group dedicated to the refugee crisis: A man was seeking a host for his son, who had come to the U.S. from Ukraine alone.

“We wanted to do something,” Jane Yurkevich told The Standard. “It was just so heartbreaking to see that a child is by himself in a different country.”

Because the boy had studied at a school following the Waldorf educational philosophy in Ukraine, his father wanted him to study at a similar institution in the U.S. The Yurkeviches knew the San Francisco Waldorf School well because their daughter Dasha, now 20, had attended kindergarten there.

So Jane called up and asked the school whether it would take a refugee child from Ukraine. Not only did they accept him, they also gave him a full scholarship.

“And so I said, ‘We’ll take him,’” Jane told The Standard. “And it was arranged the same day.”

A New Home

After arriving in the United States, Yura spent three months living with his aunt and uncle in New Jersey. But they were unable to host him long term. And Yura found the suburb of New York City where they lived dull.

So he was excited to come to San Francisco. But the task of moving to a new place, living with a new family and enrolling in a new school was daunting.

When he arrived in late June, Yura didn’t know what to expect and was afraid he wouldn’t be accepted by his classmates. In the end, everything went smoothly, he says.

Yura jokes around with Dasha and Niki at the Yurkevich home in San Francisco on Nov. 2, 2022. | Mike Kuba/The Standard

Last month, he celebrated his first Halloween with the Yurkeviches. The day he was interviewed by The Standard, he was preparing to experience his first Dia de los Muertos. He says he has made friends at school and is enjoying playing in a youth soccer league.

“My favorite thing about San Francisco is the people,” he said. “They are so kind. They remind me of people in Ukraine.”

The Yurkeviches are equally happy to have him. Their daughter Dasha says she and her brother Nikolai, 17, have enjoyed having someone younger in the house. 

He’s “like a little light in our life,” she said. 

But Yura’s heart is still in Ukraine. He talks with his parents every day and worries about their safety.

“My parents are trying not to tell me super scary things,” he said. “They’re explaining to me what's going on, but not in details.”

Still, he finds out. When Russia bombed the Kyiv city center on Oct. 10, targeting civilian infrastructure like a popular park, Polishchuk learned about the news from Instagram.

Despite it all, he hopes to return to Ukraine by next summer, see his parents and start high school.

“Of course, my dream is to wake up one day and hear the president announce that it’s all over,” he said, “to call my parents and cry it out, talk it out, to understand that a new stage of our life has begun.”

“I dream of seeing my country again, like it was before Feb. 24,” he added. “And maybe better.”

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