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THE GREAT DIVIDE

For Ukrainian refugee family in Cambridge, multiple school transfers compound trauma

Viktoriia Susidenko spoke with her children Luka, 4, and Mariia, 10, at the dining room table in their home in Cambridge. The Unanian family are Ukrainian parolees who came to the United States last year to escape the Russian invasion.Danielle Parhizkaran/Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE — At her family’s small apartment, 10-year-old Mariia Unanian keeps a packet of farewell notes from her Belmont friends. The cover is dominated by bubble letters that read, “We will miss you.” Inside, pages contain special messages recalling memories of doing cartwheels at recess and sharing candy.

Her 8-year-old brother, Daniel, has a similar pile covered in bright stickers, messages, and drawings.

Goodbyes are hard for their family, and in the past nearly two years, they have been forced to say it often.

The Unanians — Mariia, Daniel, their 4-year-old brother, Luka, and their parents, Viktoriia Susidenko and Karen Unanian — have been desperately seeking stability since March 2022, when they fled their home in Kyiv to escape the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

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Karen Unanian hugs his daughter Mariia, 10, in their home in Cambridge.Danielle Parhizkaran/Globe Staff

They spent time in Austria and California, starting over at each stop. When they landed in Belmont in August, and their children quickly found friends and planted roots in school, the family hoped to make the community their home. But they again faced upheaval when they were unexpectedly forced to move in October and could only find housing in Cambridge.

Despite the family’s pleas to allow the kids to finish the school year with their friends in their Belmont schools, district leaders denied their request, and now the Ukrainians are questioning whether Belmont could have done more to make an exception for them.

The most recent, unexpected transition has devastated children who have already experienced nearly two years of trauma after fleeing their war-torn country, their mother said.

Mariia and Daniel, who often ask to visit their Belmont teachers, still sometimes ask her, ‘”What did we do bad? Was it our fault that we were kicked out?’” said Susidenko.

From left, Daniel, 8; Karen; Luka, 4; Mariia, 10; and Viktoriia sat down for dinner at their home in Cambridge.Danielle Parhizkaran/Globe Staff

Federal law requires districts to allow students who are considered homeless to finish the academic year in their “school of origin,” even if the student is forced to move to a temporary residence in another town. Those protections also apply to the migrant children who arrived in Massachusetts in waves this year, stretching the state’s emergency shelter system to its limit. But it’s unclear whether the law applies to the Unanian family, who are technically humanitarian parolees, not refugees, and because they were able to find a home in Cambridge.

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According to the most recent data from the US Department of Education, more than 21,000 homeless students were enrolled in Massachusetts’ public schools in the 2021-22 school year.

A representative for the state’s executive office of education said a family must meet the legal definition of homelessness to qualify for those protections. Otherwise, students are only entitled to enroll in the district they live in.

There are exceptions: if the prior district is open for school choice, or if the new district’s school committee agrees to take on transportation costs and other expenses of the child attending a school in a different district.

Though the Unanians pleaded their case, the Belmont district would not budge: Mariia and Daniel could not finish the school year in Belmont Public Schools. The district declined to comment in response to requests from the Globe.

Baffled by rigid district enrollment policies, Susidenko worries the heartbreak of this latest unexpected transition is compounding the trauma her kids have already endured.

In the days after the war began, it felt like the Russian bombardment of their hometown Kyiv, was “nonstop,” Susidenko said. She and her three kids got so used to the sound of bomb sirens during the day, that she would only usher them into the cement basement of their building to take cover if she heard the glass windows rattling in their frames.

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Mariia held her traditional Ukrainian shirts, called vyshyvankas, which she was considering wearing for Christmas.Danielle Parhizkaran/Globe Staff

That’s when “you know it’s dangerous,” she said.

Every night, the four of them slept together in the basement, as her husband, Karen, patrolled the streets as part of an armed civilian volunteer group. She was never sure if they would make it to the morning.

“Every night when we go to sleep, I say to God, ‘God please, if we die, [take our] whole family in one second, please,’” Susidenko said.

For their kids’ safety, Susidenko convinced her husband, who was exempt from the military draft because of their three children, to flee the country in March.

They drove to Austria, where they spent five months with friends. Then after receiving United States visas through the government’s humanitarian parole program, the family arrived in California, where they stayed with close friends until August 2023, when they moved to Boston for better work opportunities.

In Belmont, they found a woman willing to rent her basement to the family of five for $1,500 a month.

At school, the kids quickly made friends, grew to adore their teachers, and loved their after-school program where they could get help with homework, allowing their parents to work the full day without worrying about child care.

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But when the woman whose basement they were renting unexpectedly told them in October they had three weeks to find alternative housing, they once again faced upheaval. They could only find a small Cambridge apartment that cost more than twice as much that would accept them as renters. Then they got a letter the children would have to leave their schools.

The kids, Susidenko said, were devastated. Mariia took it especially hard.

“She used to say horrible things,” Susidenko said, near tears. “She said that, ‘It’s better to die than to go to another school,’ and ‘It’s your fault because you keep moving us around.’”

Viktoriia Susidenko talked to son Luka in their home in Cambridge.Danielle Parhizkaran/Globe Staff

Ashley E. Cureton, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s school of social work, researches the academic and emotional needs of refugee youth and their families, and said for vulnerable kids such as the Unanians, being unexpectedly uprooted from an environment where they’ve connected with peers and trusted adults can compound the trauma and loss they’ve already experienced as refugees.

“It is imperative that they can stay in one place, that they can build those relationships, that they can build a sense of community, and really feel like they have a place here in the US,” Cureton said.

They tried to fight to stay in Belmont schools. With the help of new friends, they pleaded with the Belmont School Committee and superintendent to make an exception to minimize the additional trauma for the kids.

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In emails shared with the Globe, the superintendent told the family she could not make an exception to the policy, and the School Committee does not weigh in on individual student cases.

The verdict, and the prospect of Mariia and Daniel having to start from scratch in another new school, was heartbreaking, said Susidenko.

“In Ukraine, we have what we want [and need], but here you are zero,” she said.

Mariia and Daniel began attending their new school in Cambridge earlier this month, their fourth since leaving Ukraine. According to their principal, they are doing well and settling in. Still, the kids miss what they had in Belmont.

And with waitlists for after-school programs in Cambridge, Susidenko has had to cut back on her work hours so she can pick her kids up from school, making it difficult to afford their rent.

Susidenko said she has not given up on finding their family an affordable apartment back in Belmont, so Mariia and Daniel can reenroll in the district. Even so, uncertainty still hovers on the horizon. Their humanitarian parole visas are set to expire in August, and if the government doesn’t renew them, they could be forced to leave the country.

“I want to come back home and live my past life, but I don’t know how it’s possible right now,” Susidenko said. “When will war stop? I don’t know.”

What she does know is that when it comes to fighting for her kids, “I cannot stop,” she said.


Niki Griswold can be reached at niki.griswold@globe.com. Follow her @nikigriswold.