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He fled the war in Ukraine at 14. Now in New York, he has grand plans

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's graduation season, and for one young student, the ceremony this Saturday marks the end of a long chapter. It began on the front lines of the war in Ukraine and brought him to a tiny school in upstate New York. North Country Public Radio's Emily Russell brings us his story.

EMILY RUSSELL, BYLINE: On a cold, dark morning last February, a 14-year-old boy in Kharkiv, Ukraine, got up before the sunrise.

YEHOR: I woke up really early in the morning to do my homework because I just like to do my homework in the morning.

RUSSELL: That's Yehor. We're not using his last name to protect his family back in Ukraine.

YEHOR: And I have heard, like, strange sound, which I have never heard before. They were rockets. Like, I could hear rockets.

RUSSELL: Russian rockets were bombing his hometown. The war in Ukraine had begun. Yehor and his family fled their home. They spent the next night at his grandmother's house where they thought they'd be safe. But Yehor remembers watching that night as fiery rockets flew over their neighborhood.

YEHOR: I survived this night, but I learned that, like, houses down the street were just destroyed.

RUSSELL: Yehor's school was also destroyed. At the time, he was prepping for a national math competition. Math is Yehor's favorite subject, but the war took that away from him, took away his safety and his childhood. So his big brother, Dan, got to work. He wrote to schools in the U.S. looking for a spot for Yehor.

BILL NEWMAN: The moment I got Daniel's letter, it certainly pulled at my heartstrings. We got to find a way to make this happen.

RUSSELL: That's Bill Newman, head of admissions at the North Country School, a tiny junior boarding school in Lake Placid, N.Y. They issued Yehor a student visa, offered him a full ride, and Yehor's friends and family raised money for his plane ticket. On Easter Sunday of last year, Newman drove five hours to Boston to pick Yehor up from the airport.

NEWMAN: I remember he had his older brother's clothes on, and so we had cuffs folded up to the knee.

RUSSELL: It took a lot just to get Yehor out of Ukraine and into school in the States. He's one of more than a million young Ukrainians to be displaced by the war. Even after he was settled in at the North Country School, Yehor says it took time for it to feel like a place where he could learn and grow.

YEHOR: In the start, it was really hard because I didn't know any English, and I couldn't communicate with people. I couldn't do my homework properly because I just couldn't understand what's going on. But North Country School has offered me many opportunities.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHEEP BLEATING)

RUSSELL: It's a cool spring day, and Yehor is showing me around the school's barn. The North Country School is pretty progressive. Students here help raise sheep and chickens, which they later harvest for food. Yehor bends down and picks up a little gray cat.

And who's this in your arms?

YEHOR: It's Mercury. He's - barn cat.

RUSSELL: Mercury?

YEHOR: Yeah, he's really a friendly cat. He loves people and animals.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAT MEOWING)

RUSSELL: The school's barn manager, Erica Burns, says getting students like Yehor to take care of the animals and to do barn chores, it instills a lot in them.

ERICA BURNS: It teaches kids how to do hard things and how to do things with consistency and how to be responsible. And I think Yehor has also - like, he's come to this conclusion a lot faster than a lot of people - his, like, love and appreciation for the barn.

RUSSELL: Yehor loves riding horses and just spending time with the barn animals. Growing up in the second-largest city in Ukraine, Yehor says there's no way he could have imagined his life today in rural upstate New York.

YEHOR: I have never, like, thought that I would, like, change water for the sheep, give them grain, like, or milk the goat because I have done milking the goat. And it's pretty hard.

RUSSELL: Over the last year, Yehor has proven he can do hard things. He's learned English, taken AP calculus, even gone downhill skiing for the first time. As the war in Ukraine rages on, Yehor says he tries not to think about it too much. It's too hard.

YEHOR: I miss my family. My mother came - visit me during the summer, but I have not seen my father. I have not seen my grandparents, which is really sad.

RUSSELL: But somehow, as a 15-year-old, he's found a way to keep going. He's got a full ride to a boarding high school in New York where he'll start this fall. He then wants to go to college in the U.S. Eventually, though, Yehor says he does want to move back home to Ukraine.

YEHOR: I hope that I can start anti-war organization. Also, I'm thinking to volunteer to help other global issues such as climate change.

RUSSELL: Yehor has big, grand plans. But first, he's focused on the summer. After he graduates from the North Country School, Yehor hopes to travel back home to Ukraine to visit family, the first time in more than a year. For NPR News, I'm Emily Russell in Lake Placid, N.Y. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Russell, NCPR