Teen who fled Ukraine finding refuge in Falmouth
Ten days hiding in a crowded basement was Sasha Kaplenko’s first step out of Kharkiv, but not the hardest one.
More than 6.5 million people have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded six months ago, and even more have left their homes.
The enormity of the crisis can feel overwhelming. But on Cape Cod, a family and school are bringing one teenager — Sasha — to safety.
When the war started, Sasha was 13 and living in Kharkiv, with grandparents and other close family nearby. He and his mother fled to a friend’s basement outside the city.
“It's pretty heartbreaking,” said Julia Zagachin, who lives in Falmouth.
She’s been using her Russian language skills and working with friends and colleagues around the world to help refugees like Sasha find school and job placements abroad.
“You talk to people in Kharkiv, and there's literally bombs. You hear bombs,” she said.
Her dog barked in the background.
“Right now, you hear my dog, but there you hear bombs,” she said. “I’m like, ‘What's that noise?’ And the person I'm talking to says, ‘Oh, don't worry, it's just a bomb. It’s far away.’”
Sasha’s mother told Zagachin in Russian that 28 people were hiding in the basement, along with four dogs.
They started running out of food, and the bombing and shelling were getting more intense. A neighbor was killed by a shell fragment.
She decided it was time to go, Zagachin said.
“She said, ‘I'm not having my kids here under constant gunfire.’ Because she's a doctor, she's worried about psychological trauma.”
But she said the worst thing for Sasha was leaving behind his grandparents without getting a chance to say goodbye.
AN IDEA BEARS FRUIT
Before Sasha and his mother walked over the Polish border — and before Zagachin had ever heard of them — she had an idea.
She and her family would try to bring a teenager displaced by the war into their home, as an international student.
She approached Falmouth Academy, where her son, Marc Djikaev, is entering his freshman year.
At this point, she didn’t have a particular student in mind.
She asked Head of School Matt Green if he could provide some critical things: a scholarship, academic support, and a student visa.
“It felt like an opportunity for the academy to be a part of the solution and in a modest way,” he said, “but also an opportunity, from the school's point of view, to really enroll a great kid who might enrich the educational experience for all of our students.”
With the yes from Falmouth Academy, Zagachin worked through her international contacts to find a student who had fled Ukraine.
Green said he expects Sasha will do well, though he’s not yet fluent in English.
“I think what we're expecting is a student that's very advanced in his own language, and in particular in math and science, and we're just going to sort of play some catch up on the humanities,” he said. “My hope and expectation is that if he's with us over time, he'll be in great shape by the time he graduates.”
Zagachin said whatever happens, Sasha will be in Falmouth for at least a year.
Otherwise, he might have stayed in a dorm in a small town in Latvia with his mother, not getting an education, she said.
“Instead, he's going to be living in Falmouth with us,” she said. “Hopefully it will be a happy end.”
TIME TO BE A TEENAGER
Sasha arrived in late June and celebrated his 14th birthday here, with Zagachin and her family.
She said he’s not ready to speak publicly.
But he and her son, Marc, will enter 9th grade together, and they’ve already been getting to know each other.
It’s easier because Marc speaks Russian with his parents at home.
“It's almost like having a sibling, because I can speak the same language,” he said.
Sasha is skilled at basketball, and Marc recently started playing basketball, too.
"So I'm very excited about that,” he said.
He said his friends are looking forward to meeting Sasha — and they’re hoping he’ll play sports for Falmouth Academy.
But it’s hard, Marc said, to think about the conditions that forced Sasha to escape his home country.
“There's a lot of bad things happening, and a lot of people aren't really doing anything about it,” he said. “So I'd rather just not think about it.”
Instead, he thinks about “the future, and, like, what could change,” he said.
For now, the hosts in Falmouth plan to focus on letting Sasha be a regular kid — as much as he can.