(Photo by: Chris Granger)
Uliana Dolinna, a 14-year-old Ukrainian refugee, scours Instagram for news of her friends now scattered across the globe.
In March, Uliana and her family were forced to flee their home in Odesa when the Russians began bombing her neighborhood.
"My mom woke me up at 5 a.m. in the morning and said, 'Pack your clothes,'" said Uliana. "There was a bomb near our house."
What followed was a frantic exodus in a gridlocked convoy of friends and neighbors fleeing the city. Uliana says the journey to the next town took 15 hours, usually a two-hour drive from the family’s home. Details of her story might remind New Orleanians of hurricane evacuations, but with the unimaginable addition of missile strikes.
After finally crossing into Poland and then Romania, the family flew to New York and, finally, Louisiana. They now reside in Metairie with Uliana's godmother, Dr. Oksana Nimkevych, a physician at Ochsner.
Uliana only had time to pack a few clothes, but she doesn’t mourn the loss of her possessions. Mostly, she misses her friends. She's grateful to be safe, but, in the same breath, shares the stress of sleepless nights.
She's worried about those left behind.
At the same time, "I like to be here," Uliana smiled. "I go to a new school, and I really love it."
Uliana is now in eighth grade at the Academy of the Sacred Heart Uptown. It was Nimkevych who approached the school's head, Micheline Dutil, who immediately made room for Uliana and three other girls, age 5 and up, from Ukraine.
Nimkevych says the school was amazingly generous and provided uniforms, laptops and even the required shoes.
"She is thriving here. Her English was already quite good, which enabled her to build friendships," said Dutil. "'Uli,' as she likes to be called, is athletic, artistic and curious."
Dancing is in the family
Back in Odesa, Uliana was a champion cheerleader. But Ukrainian cheerleading is a far cry from the American version. It may include American-style cheer costumes and the occasional pom-pom, but videos of Uli show a dancer classically trained at the barre, a lean and graceful girl who flies through the air with the precision of a prima ballerina.
Dance is in her blood. Her parents owned and ran a successful youth dance academy in Odesa. Uliana taught and trained "dance squad" there, the closest English translation of the Ukrainian sport. Her brother also dances, while her father is a well-known martial arts instructor.
For now, though, she's busy exploring New Orleans. She recently enjoyed her first crawfish boil — albeit with lemons, garlic, fresh herbs, and no cayenne — she isn't comfortable eating spicy foods. After a visit to Audubon Zoo, she thoughtfully expressed her appreciation that the animals were not caged as in her old city.
She is quick to share that her favorite sno-ball is pink lemonade — a flavor that is all the rage at school.
"It was soooo yummy, and I was so happy because we don't have sno-balls in Ukraine."
(Uliana Dolinna, 14, is an accomplished cheerleader and dancer. Here she's shown executing an athletic maneuver on a beach. Photo courtesy of Dolinna Family)
What the future holds
Like any teen, she talks excitedly about her future; for the most part, a driver's education course and finding a spot on a cheer squad top her list.
She recently performed a solo dance routine at a Ukrainian fundraiser held by the Jewish Federation of New Orleans, wearing a traditional Ukrainian costume and a floral hair wreath. She doesn't suffer stage fright and is a confident performer, poised beyond her years. Yet, at other times, she is a somewhat shy teen making her way among strangers.
Her godmother is busy organizing a resettlement center and a nonprofit where she gathers medical supplies for Ukraine and household goods for families in New Orleans who are escaping the war. She describes the difficulty of the new arrivals being unable to work, buy phones, or even rent homes without credit ratings, Social Security numbers, or green cards. For now, the families under her care must rely on local philanthropy.
Uliana muses that when the war is over, she will return to Odesa to see her friends and to retrieve what her translator app says are her plush toys. Before she left, she says she hurriedly arranged her beloved stuffed animals on her coverlet as she made her bed.
"They are all so old but loving presents from my friends," said Uliana.
When asked if she misses home, she contrasts the surrounding wealth of greenery and trees in her new suburb with her former urban apartment block in devastated Odesa.
(Uliana Dolinna wore traditional Ukrainian attire and floral headdress to perform at a New Orleans fundraiser recently. Photo courtesy of Dolinna family).
Then, smiling confidently, she states, "I will now be American."