A 5,000 mile journey through a war zone ends happily at a Catholic school

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Fifth-grade student Theodore Gaynullin and his mother Ellen Caravan (right) found a warm welcome at St. Athanasius Catholic Academy, where principal Diane Competello (left) said teachers were ready to answer questions family needs. (Photo: Paula Katinas)

A family escapes chaos in Ukraine to find peace in Brooklyn

BENSONHURST – You’ll never complain about a long walk again after hearing the story of 11-year-old Theodore Gaynullin and his mother, who walked 15 miles – on foot – to the Polish border to escape the War-torn Ukraine.

Their harrowing 5,000-mile journey brought them to Bensonhurst, where Theodore is enrolled at St. Athanasius Catholic Academy and adjusting to life in America after living in kyiv for the past few years.

“It was dangerous. Bombs went off, Theodore said, recalling the flight from Ukraine.

“We are so happy to be here,” Ellen Caravan, Theodore’s mother, said in an interview at the academy on Wednesday. Théodore’s first day at Saint-Athanase was Monday, March 14.

“He fit in right away,” principal Diane Competello said. Not only that, but he has proven to be a popular student. “And I noticed that during the first lunch, I was watching what was going on and everyone was talking to him at the table.”

For someone so young, Theodore has traveled a lot. Caravan, who was born and raised in Ukraine, moved to the United States 17 years ago. She lived with her son in Bensonhurst, where Theodore frequented PS100. Three years ago, a strained family situation led her to send Theodore to Ukraine to live with relatives while she remained in Bensonhurst.

But when talk of a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine heated up last month, Caravan left the United States and flew to Ukraine to bring back her son. To his surprise, he hesitated to leave. “He wanted to wait until the end of the school year,” she recalls.

Everything changed on February 24, when the first Russian tanks entered Ukraine. “It was 6 a.m. and my father [who lived in Kyiv] called me and said, ‘This is war,'” she said.

Caravan packed a bag with a change of clothes for her and Théodore – nothing else. She didn’t have time to panic. “I just thought we had to get out of here,” she recalled.

Caravan and Theodore managed to sneak onto a crowded train bound for Lviv, a city in the west of the country closer to the Polish border. Once in Lviv, they hired a driver and tried to get to the border. There were so many people fleeing at the same time, the roads were almost impassable. It took over three hours to cover a quarter mile.

It was then that Caravan made a bold decision. She and Theodore would walk to the border. By then, mother and son were 15 miles away.

“Theodore was tired and we were scared,” she recalls. They had no food. She noticed that many other families were also on foot and pointed this out to her son. “I said to him: ‘Theodore, there are four and five-year-old children walking. You can do it,” she said.

They arrived at the border in five hours. The queue at the border post was long, but once in Poland, Caravan felt a weight on his shoulders.

“Everything was so different. There were volunteers there asking if we needed anything,” she recalls.

They needed a hotel room. However, all rooms were booked. A stranger greeted them. The woman had a friend with a dog and suggested Caravan stay with that friend as it would be nice for Theodore to have a dog to play with.

After a few days, Caravan and her son traveled to Warsaw, where, after several failed attempts to book a flight to New York, they finally boarded a plane for the United States.

They arrived in New York on March 2. One of the first things Caravan did was enroll Theodore in the Catholic Academy of Saint Athanase. “I wanted him to go to this beautiful Catholic school,” she said.

Msgr. David Cassato, pastor of St. Athanasius Church, said every effort had been made to ensure Theodore had a smooth transition to his new environment. “The principal and the teacher met the mother beforehand,” he said.

Théodore is enjoying his new school, where he is in a CM2 class. His favorite subject is mathematics.

After worrying about the bombs, mother and son revel in being able to lead normal lives. “It’s quiet here,” Caravan said. Yet she constantly worries about her relatives still living in Ukraine. “It’s not safe,” she said, adding that she keeps in touch with them frequently.

Saint Athanasius is only too happy to play a part in helping families heal in a war-torn region, said Msgr. Cassato, who is also the vicar of Catholic schools for the Brooklyn Diocese, said the academy is open to accepting more Ukrainian evacuees if needed.

“We provide stability amidst the chaos in their lives. We offer them hope in the midst of such conflict,” he said. “We give them probably the greatest gift of all – God’s love.”

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