When war broke out in Anton Haskevych's home country of Ukraine, he made over 2,000 calls to American charities and churches for help. Receiving aid from Garden City's Cathedral of the Incarnation, he is set to graduate from Garden City High School. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Bombs and other weapons of the war with Russia had left Anton Haskevych desperate to get out of Ukraine. So the teenager searched for ways for himself and his family to escape the chaos by making random calls to churches and other organizations in the United States, with hopes of landing slots in a federal refugee program.

After 2,147 calls over several months — in which all told him to forget it — he finally connected with the Episcopal cathedral in Garden City. The music director there, Larry Tremsky, happened to speak Ukrainian. He eventually traveled to war-torn Ukraine, met the family, and with the help of the church and the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island agreed to bring them here.

Now, 1½ years after they arrived, Haskevych, 18, is about to graduate from Garden City High School. A software whiz, he is set to begin his freshman year this fall at UC Irvine in Southern California.

'Insanely surprised'

He can scarcely believe his good luck, and the generosity he has felt from Tremsky and the parishioners and staff at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City.

    WHAT TO KNOW

  • Anton Haskevych, 18, had tried but failed to find a way out of Ukraine for himself and his family after Russia launched an invasion.

  • Persistance paid off as the music director at the Episcopal Church's cathedral in Garden City heard Haskevych's pleas and cleared the path for his family's journey to Long Island.

  • He is about to graduate from Garden City High School and will start his freshmen year in the fall at UC Irvine in Southern California.

“I am insanely surprised” about ending up on Long Island, Haskevych said. The United States is the “place where I want to be, where I want to live. I see opportunities for the future.”

From left, Anton Haskevych, with his sister, Uliana, his mother,...

From left, Anton Haskevych, with his sister, Uliana, his mother, Yuliia, and Larry Tremsky, the director of music at Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City, who along with other church leaders, helped the family get to Long Island from war-torn Ukraine. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Looking back, said Tremsky, the odds of the two crossing paths as the teenager sought an escape seemed astronomical.

“It’s kind of ironic that fleeing from a place like Ukraine he managed to reach someone in Garden City, New York, but who also understood what Ukraine was and whose church has the wherewithal to help,” said Tremsky.

Haskevych and his family came to the United States under a program called Uniting for Ukraine. On April 21, 2022, two months after the invasion, President Joe Biden announced the program to help Ukrainians flee the war. Those who qualify must have a relative or someone else in the U.S. who agrees to provide financial support and pick the refugee up at the airport. Sponsors must also help find initial housing, and assist with other areas such as education and health care.

The Ukrainians who qualify are given a two-year temporary “parole” or legal stay in the United States, with an extension possible. They can attend school, obtain a Social Security card, and in some cases work legally. They also might qualify for refugee resettlement benefits such as food stamps. So far, about 193,000 Ukrainians have arrived in the United States through the program, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

No hesitation

When Haskevych heard about it, he didn't hesitate, and with good reason. His family is from a small town near the southern city of Kherson, the first major Ukrainian city to fall as Russian troops swept in from Crimea.

“It was a bloodbath,” he said.

Plus, his father worked for the Ukrainian government in the justice department. Word spread that the Russians wanted to “talk to” him and other government workers, Haskevych said. His father was worried his family could be killed.

They fled for western Ukraine, which was safer, and where someone Haskevych found through Facebook offered a room for the family, he said.

But his goal was still the United States. Haskevych didn’t have any relatives or know anyone here. So he started Googling the names of churches and civic organizations hoping to find a sponsor. He'd dial from Ukraine late at night so he could reach potential sponsors in the U.S.

It didn’t go well initially. Some just hung up. Others sent emails back, but then never responded to Haskevych's multiple replies or phone calls.

“His parents after a month or two were just saying, ‘Give up. You’re not going to find anybody. Stop doing this, you are wasting your time and you are driving yourself and us crazy,' ” Tremsky said.

Then he got the call from the soft-spoken teen.

The way Haskevych remembers it, when Tremsky picked up the phone and started speaking Ukrainian, it felt as if he was being teased at a most non-teasable moment

“I thought the American churches are making fun of me,” he said. “I just couldn’t believe it … Who would think there is an American in New York who knows Ukrainian?” 

Tremsky grew up in a Slavic area of Ohio and speaks Ukrainian because he has had a long-time interest in the country. He has traveled there 14 times, including for programs to study the language.

After that first conversation in July 2022, Tremsky and Haskevych kept talking. By October, Tremsky went to Ukraine to meet the family in the western part of the country, which was relatively safe. Still, he had to fly into Krakow, Poland, and then take a train into Ukraine, since no commercial flights are allowed in.

Tremsky's visit, which was legally permitted, was punctuated by middle-of-the-night air raid sirens, but he and the family bonded, and he agreed to officially sponsor them. A few days before Christmas, they arrived in New York.

The father, however, had to remain in Ukraine because men between 18 and 60 are not allowed to leave amid the war, which broke out after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an invasion on Feb. 24, 2022. More than two years of combat have left at least 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers dead, according to authorities there. The U.S. is backing Ukraine.

Smooth transition

On Long Island, the transition for Haskevych has gone “shockingly well,” Tremsky said.

The teenager, who sometimes sounds more like a midcareer executive than a typical 18-year-old Long Islander, is popular in school and is an "A" student, according to Tremsky, who helped the incoming freshmen's college search. He has won scholarship money from UC Irvine, Amazon, and his high school that will pay part of his tuition. He plans to major in business information management in Irvine's computer science school.

Haskevych spent much of last summer at Stanford University doing an internship focused on solar panels. An unofficial sponsor he met through the Internet and who lives in Silicon Valley helped arrange it. Haskevych also cofounded a fledgling software company that he runs during his time off from school. It specializes in helping dance studios handle scheduling, payments and other items.

“Anton is a superstar,” said Donna Getchell, his math teacher at Garden City High School. “Anton’s life experience at such a young age supersedes most of what the other students will ever experience. He is a focused, brilliant and determined young man fighting for a brighter future.”

His 13-year-old sister has also fit in well, and is on her middle school's lacrosse team, Tremsky said. As for Haskevych's mother, she spends much of her time studying English in hopes of launching a career  one day, possibly in accounting. They speak often with Haskevych’s father by phone or FaceTime, and hope eventually to reunite with him on Long Island, though it’s unclear when or if that could happen.

Tremsky said the story of Haskevych’s journey still amazes him.

“I’ve worked with kids my whole life. I’ve never met anyone quite with this level of determination and drive,” Tremsky said. “It really is a story of persistence and not giving up. And it paid off.”

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