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WAR IN UKRAINE

A refugee family from Ukraine rebuilds in Rhode Island

Oleksandr Kreshchuk and his family found community at the Second Baptist Church, where he conducts the choir and works to create a new life in East Providence.

Viktoria Kreshchuk plays violin in the Second Baptist Church of East Providence.Courtesy of RI PBS

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Nine months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Oleksandr Kreshchuk, 56, finds himself in America rebuilding his life from “zero level.” Kreshchuk is at the altar, conducting a 12-person Christian choir at Second Baptist Church of East Providence.

He leads the congregation in the highs and lows of gospel hymns. It’s more than just the echoing sounds of the music, it’s a unifier in a troubled world. It’s a multicultural church with worshipers from Ukraine, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Moldova, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Georgia. They sing in Russian — the language common to the 250 members of the church with family ties to former Soviet Republic countries.

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They are united by their Christian faith and a desire to help the more than 25 members of their community who have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded the country in February.

“Time’s so quickly gone, and life can change radically. And we as a people must look for any possibility to help one another because we never know what will happen next in our life,” said Kreshchuk.

Oleksandr Kreshchuk conducts choir rehearsal at the Second Baptist Church of East Providence. Courtesy of RI PBS

Leading up to the invasion, he understood Russian soldiers training at the border in Belarus meant war. He just didn’t understand how soon.

“We didn’t know the right date when war will start, but we understood at that time it can happen at any moment.”

They prepared by storing food and water. He asked his children to fill their backpacks with essentials.

On Feb. 24, missiles rained down outside their home in Irpin, close to the capital of Kyiv. That’s when he, and his wife Iryna, 56, decided to flee. Hastily cramming into their old Mazda, in the middle of the night, their three youngest children Elvira, 14, Alex, 18, and Viktoria, 22, fled with their parents. Older daughters, Alina, 31 and Diana, 29, escaped later; Sofia, 28, remains in Ukraine along with her husband and son.

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The kids asked to take their treasured string instruments. But it was impossible. There was no time, and no such space.

They headed west toward Poland, hoping to reach Warsaw. As they got news on the road from officials, friends, and relatives that bridges and roads had been bombed, they decided to escape to Romania instead.

“It was very cold” at the Romanian border, Kreshchuk remembered. “It was a terrible situation.”

“I saw on TV what’s happened in Syria or in other countries when refugees left, but I cannot imagine. I’m standing in this crowd and crying. I see my kids. I see my grandchildren and have no idea what will happen in the future,” said Kreshchuk.

They left behind a big two-story house with musical instruments tucked in every corner. His children were classically trained to play the violin, flute, piano and cello. Kreshchuk’s book collection spanned 3,000 volumes, handed down from his father’s generation. Celebrations were grand in the Kreshchuk house, especially during New Year’s Eve and Christmas.

“Our house was always full of music, joy, kids, and prepared food.”

Kreshchuk was involved in music ministry and education. He is well respected within the Christian choir world; his work took him to America and throughout Europe. His career highlight came when he was invited to conduct a 5,000 person choir at a revival meeting led by evangelist Billy Graham in Moscow’s Olympic arena in 1992.

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On their journey to resettlement, Romanians, and later Polish hosts, generously opened their homes to the Kreshchuk family. Strangers arranged space on their floor for the Kreshchuks to sleep, and nourished them with hot tea, warm milk, and whatever food they had available.

With no family elsewhere in Europe, they sought sponsorship by Kreshchuk’s relatives in the United States. They left Romania headed to Poland via a train through Austria to apply for their American visas.

Sponsored by Kreshchuk’s brother through the Uniting for Ukraine program, in June they settled in Rhode Island. After months of traveling, the children’s greatest ask was for the privacy of their own bedrooms. It wasn’t until August that they found an ideal apartment across from the Second Baptist Church.

“A miracle,” says Kreshchuk.

Their apartment in East Providence is completely furnished with donated items. Alex and Elvira are enrolled at a private Christian school thanks to the generosity of their community.

“First three, four weeks, it was difficult” for the kids in school. “But week by week, their emotional condition changed,” he said.

Kreshchuk spends hours each day perfecting his English. His wife of 33 years, Iryna, takes in-person beginner English classes at Dorcas International Institute of RI. They just received notice of their work authorizations.

The Kreshchuks' family home in Irpin was destroyed. Courtesy of RI PBS
The Kreshchuks' family home before the Russian invasion.Courtesy of RI PBS

Their home in Irpin was destroyed. Before journeying to America, daughter Viktoria returned to Irpin after Russian occupiers left. It’s hard to put into words how she felt coming back to a ruined house. So, she did what Kreshchuks are trained to do: She picked up her violin and played in what was once her living room, a place where she’d practiced so many times. Viktoria said she looked to the heavens for strength.

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Life is a journey, explained her father.

“God gave me this experience,” Kreshchuk said. This chance to live and now I understand it’s a new period of my life. Even if I need to start from zero level, I will do it.”

Alli-Michelle Conti is a freelance writer based in Rhode Island. Justin Kenny is a senior producer with “Rhode Island PBS Weekly.” Their episode about Ukrainian refugees in Rhode Island, titled “The Conductor,” aired on RI PBS; you can also watch it at pbs.org.

Because of an editing error, Oleksandr Kreshchuk’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.