Student who fled Ukraine
feels at home at
Maryland Catholic high school

Ivan Dmytriiev, 17, a Ukrainian refugee, posed for a photo near DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Md., May 19, 2022. (CNS Photo by Andrew Biraj, Catholic Standard)

By Mark Zimmermann

HYATTSVILLE, Md. — As musicians in the Advanced Percussion Ensemble of DeMatha Catholic High School gathered on stage for a recent concert at their Hyattsville school, one of the performers — a new student there — didn’t have time to get a tux like the other student musicians were wearing, so he donned a DeMatha blazer and khakis.

Before the performance, Michael Gatti, chairman of DeMatha’s music department and the percussion instructor, introduced that student to the audience.

He was Ivan Dmytriiev, 17, a Ukrainian refugee who had arrived in the United States with his 6-year-old brother, Mykhailo, after a harrowing escape from his country just after Russia launched its invasion there.

Dmytriiev and his brother live with their grandparents, Olga D. Carlson and Ronald Carlson, in Lanham, Md., and he started attending DeMatha in April.

In Ukraine, the teen attended a music school and played the drums and xylophone. Before the DeMatha concert, he learned the piece of music that the ensemble would be performing, and he played the xylophone and cymbals in the performance.

“He got a huge ovation,” Gatti said.

In a May 19 interview at DeMatha, Dmytriiev said that concert was a fun experience for him. “I was happy. My band was very nice,” he told the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.

Sitting at a picnic table on a mild spring afternoon, the student wore a white DeMatha polo shirt and had a free period after taking a geometry test earlier that day.

Nearby, displayed on the outside of DeMatha’s main building were two banners noting the school’s “Faith-Filled Gentlemen and Scholars” and its hallmarks of faith, community service, academics, arts and athletics. And displayed on the wall in between the banners was a large blue and yellow Ukrainian flag.

Speaking English in a calm voice, Dmytriiev recounted his journey from Ukraine to Maryland.

He and his younger brother were living in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, with their mother, Anna, who had been a nurse. His parents are divorced, and his father, Sergey, lives in a village south of the capital, where he has a business. His older brother, Alex, just finished his master’s degree two weeks before the war started.

On Feb. 24, the day of the invasion, Dmytriiev’s father came to Kyiv and took him and Mykhailo to his village for safety.

The next day they decided to drive to the border with Poland, about 400 miles away. About 62 miles from the border, traffic stopped. After sleeping the night in the car, and realizing they didn’t have enough gas or food to wait there, they started walking when they were more than 12 miles from the border.

Along the way, volunteers offered help to the fleeing refugees. “People who understood the situation helped,” he said of the Ukrainians. “No matter what, they help each other. It really inspired me … and I want to do the same.”

Carrying his backpack, Dmytriiev said he just had “a couple of T-shirts, pants and some food.” Sometimes he and his father carried Mykhailo on their shoulders, but he mostly walked beside them.

“My little brother is a real hero. I couldn’t imagine what he was thinking about,” Dmytriiev said. “I kept telling him, ‘There’s a little bit left, and we’ll be fine. We’ll go to bed and have a nice sleep.’ He didn’t even cry. He was brave.”

At midnight Feb. 27, Dmytriiev crossed the border into Poland with his little brother.

Asked what his father said to the boys as he left them there, Dmytriiev answered: “He said, ‘Everything will be fine, and I will handle it.’ ” As he repeated his father’s words, his voice broke slightly with emotion.

The next day, the boys’ grandmother arrived in Poland to be with them and help them get to the United States. “My grandmother immediately came to Poland. … We were all so lucky. She found people who gave us shelter and everything we needed,” Dmytriiev said.

He noted that his grandmother in Maryland had been watching the news about Ukraine. She and his grandfather decided to do whatever they could to help the boys, and she initially found friends of friends to give them a place to stay in Poland.

“She’s my grandmother, and I really love her,” Dmytriiev said. “I know she always loved me and was willing to help no matter what. She’s the kind of person who thinks of others if they have some kind of problem.”

The boys stayed in Poland about a week, as Dmytriiev’s passport was updated. On March 10, the boys and their grandmother arrived at Dulles International Airport in the Washington area.

The teen said he talks with his family members back in Ukraine every two to three days, usually with a video chat.

“Right now, everything seems quiet. They’re in a safe place,” he said.

His mother has been assisting fellow nurses and volunteering at hospitals there. His father opened up one of his houses for refugees to stay in and has been helping people in his village. And he said his older brother has also been volunteering, bringing food to elderly residents and participating in a neighborhood watch.

Dmytriiev is a junior at DeMatha. “I’m really happy being here,” he said. “The teachers, they’re very good and kind.” Just a couple days after he arrived at the school, he made a lot of friends.

Mykhailo attends Catherine T. Reed Elementary School in Lanham.

A member of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Dmytriiev said that when Russia invaded his country, “I was actually praying and asking that everything would be fine.”

He continues to pray for the safety of his family back home and for peace there.

“At night before I go to bed, I thank God for everything he’s given me, for giving me the opportunity to leave and be in another country. I’m thankful I’m here in a safe place,” he said.

Watching the news about Ukraine is hard, but he knows the Ukrainian people “won’t surrender, and (they will) keep fighting to the end,” Dmytriiev said.

Freedom “is very important, because that’s what our great-grandparents tried to have,” he said.

After centuries of invasions, occupations, starvation and repression, Ukraine became independent in 1991. Now Russia has come to try to destroy it.

“Now that we have it (freedom), we want to defend it,” he said.

He hopes the war will end and Ukraine remains free, so he can return to his country. One day he’d like to have children “and make sure when they grow up, nothing will happen to them that happened to me.”

He dreams of possibly becoming an actor someday and expressed admiration for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a former actor and comedian.

“I really love him,” he said. “A lot of people were thinking he would leave and wouldn’t handle it. As we can see, he showed his bravery and showed that the Ukrainian people will never surrender, and (they will) finish what they started.”

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