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War separates two best friends from Ukraine

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

Today, I want to tell you about two best friends. Both of their families left Ukraine. Let's start first with their teacher.

IRYNA SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: The two friends met in Iryna Sahan's bright green kindergarten class in the northeast Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "This is young love," Iryna says, pointing to a yearbook photo where two blond children are holding hands, smiling at the camera - Daniel Bizyayev and Aurora Demchenko. Aurora, headstrong with a big personality; Daniel, a good listener - they'd sit next to each other and giggle, sometimes distracting the other students.

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: In the yellow yearbook Iryna holds on her lap, they're in every photo together. That friendship - Iryna's whole kindergarten class - came to an abrupt stop when Russia invaded Ukraine last February. Most of Iryna's students are now scattered across Ukraine and the world.

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Those two best friends, Daniel and Aurora - they'd gone the farthest from home and from each other...

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: ...Aurora in Spain and Daniel in America. I had so many questions. Were they still in touch? Did they remember each other? Had they made new friends?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It's our pleasure to welcome you to Westchester County.

NADWORNY: Producer Lauren Migaki and I visited Daniel first. He now lives with his parents and two brothers in a white two-story house about an hour from New York City.

DANIEL BIZYAYEV: A little bit different than Ukraine because, like, in Ukraine, you - usually you live in an apartment, but there's no upstairs.

NADWORNY: In the six months Daniel's been in the States, his English has flourished. He'd started learning years ago. His parents, mom Kristina and dad Yevgeniy, had been planning to emigrate to the U.S. since before Daniel was born. When the war happened, they moved up their timeline.

KRISTINA BIZYAYEV: Because we wanted to save our lives and the lives of our children. So for us, it was obvious to leave.

NADWORNY: The house is pretty empty. They didn't take much with them. And Daniel's been missing his bedroom back in Kharkiv.

DANIEL: There was so many books - so many stories.

NADWORNY: He's been making his own hand-drawn picture books to fill the space.

DANIEL: This book is about monsters scared of the night.

NADWORNY: He does have one special book he wants to show us.

DANIEL: This is me, and this is me, and this is me.

NADWORNY: It's a version of that yearbook Iryna Sahan showed us in Kharkiv. His mom got digital proofs and printed the book.

DANIEL: (Laughter).

NADWORNY: Where's Aurora?

He points to a picture of the two of them. They're holding a basket together, smiling at each other.

What's happening in that photo?

DANIEL: Just standing next...

NADWORNY: Just standing next to her, huh?

DANIEL: Yeah.

NADWORNY: What do you remember about her?

DANIEL: She likes to play soccer.

K BIZYAYEV: Daniel loves her because she's not so girlish.

DANIEL: She likes to play with cars.

K BIZYAYEV: Yeah, she does.

NADWORNY: His mom, Kristina, pulls out her phone and scrolls to a video Daniel sent Aurora last summer.

K BIZYAYEV: Yeah, here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DANIEL: (Non-English language spoken).

K BIZYAYEV: He says he misses her very much. And please call me. I want to see you - kisses for you.

NADWORNY: So is he still kind of hung up on her?

K BIZYAYEV: I think so, yes, because he has a bear - big bear...

NADWORNY: It's a stuffed bear that he sleeps with each night.

NADWORNY: He says, I pretend that it's Aurora, and I just hug her. And I'm like, OK. So, yeah, it's hard. I just couldn't imagine what's going on in his head and in his, like, soul.

NADWORNY: Kristina and her husband - they're not sure exactly how to handle this. Daniel hasn't seen Aurora in a year, and now they live on different continents.

K BIZYAYEV: Should we keep talking about her or just quit this topic at all?

NADWORNY: Aurora and her family - they never answered that video message Daniel sent. Was it too painful to stay in touch, or had they just gotten busy adjusting to life in a new country?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NADWORNY: Nearly 4,000 miles away in Valencia, Spain...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: ...Aurora Demchenko now lives in a high-rise apartment with her parents and her three energetic brothers.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Laughter).

NADWORNY: When we meet Aurora, we were expecting that big personality her Kharkiv teacher described. But instead, she's shy and timid.

I'm Elissa. What's your name?

AURORA DEMCHENKO: Aurora.

NADWORNY: Life right now - it's a bit overwhelming. She's learning English at school, and in the afternoons...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Hola, Aurora.

AURORA: Hola.

NADWORNY: ...She takes Zoom lessons in Ukrainian and Spanish.

AURORA: (Speaking Spanish).

NADWORNY: The apartment has a familiar emptiness, like Daniel's home. But there are a few reminders of Kharkiv - a painting in Ukrainian colors and that yellow yearbook from the kindergarten.

AURORA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Aurora and her mom Maryna spread out on the bed and leaf through the book.

MARYNA DEMCHENKO: (Laughter).

NADWORNY: A friend of the kindergarten teacher Iryna Sahan had brought it to Spain. The family drove two hours just to pick it up.

M DEMCHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: As they look through, Maryna points out pictures of Aurora and Daniel. "Do you remember you always saved a seat for him?"

AURORA: No.

NADWORNY: "No, I don't remember," Aurora says.

M DEMCHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "You were inseparable."

AURORA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "I don't remember," Aurora says. "Remember when your teacher would scold you for being too silly?"

M DEMCHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Aurora shakes her head.

AURORA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "No," Aurora repeats. "It didn't happen."

M DEMCHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "You have forgotten about this, haven't you?" Maryna says. She's surprised how much Aurora insists she doesn't remember. But research shows blocking out painful memories is one of the ways the brain tries to cope with trauma.

M DEMCHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Over homemade bowls of rassolnik, a dill and pickle soup, the family tells us about when they first came to Valencia. Like many Ukrainian refugees, they've been granted temporary protection to live in Europe. Aurora's dad, Alex, remembers it was during Las Fallas, Valencia's weeklong fire festival, filled with loud music, parties and fireworks in the street.

ALEX DEMCHENKO: (Imitating explosions). And it's happening in the city center.

NADWORNY: Aurora, who had just fled different types of explosions, asked her parents, has the war come to Spain?

A DEMCHENKO: Aurora - it's bombing. We go in the basement.

NADWORNY: With so much change and uncertainty, the family has clung to reminders of home, like that yearbook and a single fork her 13-year-old brother Sasha brought from their kitchen in Kharkiv.

M DEMCHENKO: Accidentally.

SASHA DEMCHENKO: Because, like, I use the same backpack for school, so, like, I accidentally took this in my bag.

A DEMCHENKO: (Laughter).

NADWORNY: Now everyone fights over it. For much of our visit, Aurora is glued to her big brother Sasha's side. I joined them on the floor playing Legos.

Did you remember your classroom?

AURORA: Yes.

NADWORNY: While we build, I show Aurora photos of us visiting her kindergarten classroom in Kharkiv.

AURORA: This is a baby school. This is a baby class.

NADWORNY: I try again to ask about Daniel, showing her photos of our trip to New York.

AURORA: (Speaking Russian).

NADWORNY: "Oh, I know that Daniel is in the U.S.," she exclaims in Russian.

He's a good artist too, just like you.

AURORA: Yes.

NADWORNY: We scrolled to a photo of Daniel's homemade book about monsters.

AURORA: I make two book.

NADWORNY: You did?

AURORA: Yeah.

NADWORNY: But those books are still in Kharkiv, she says, her eyes drifting, losing interest. Sasha leans over and whispers to her.

S DEMCHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "Would you like to meet up with Daniel?"

AURORA: (Non-English language spoken).

S DEMCHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Aurora is clearly uncomfortable, mumbling first in Russian, and then she stands up and storms off.

AURORA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: I turn to translator Hanna Palamarenko.

What'd she say?

HANNA PALAMARENKO: When he asks about Daniel, that's all.

NADWORNY: The interview is over.

PALAMARENKO: Yes.

NADWORNY: I ask Sasha what he thinks is going on.

S DEMCHENKO: I don't know - maybe because of the problems within Ukraine, maybe.

NADWORNY: Yeah. You think there's, like, a sadness?

S DEMCHENKO: Yes. Maybe she thinks that she will not see any one of them.

NADWORNY: What is clear is that Aurora is processing all this in a very different way than Daniel, who's been going to sleep each night thinking of Aurora. After Spain, we wanted to check back in on Daniel.

I just got a text message from Kristina, Daniel's mom.

Our visit in November, where we looked through the yearbook with him - it left him in tears for days.

She says, happy to have you visit us. But please don't remind Daniel about Aurora.

DANIEL: Let me do it.

NADWORNY: When we arrive in early February, it's just before dinnertime. And Daniel and his brother Adam are playing in the living room. Their littlest brother Leo runs around in his diaper. Daniel's been taking breakdancing lessons after school and is demonstrating a headstand.

DANIEL: That's how it makes it spin.

NADWORNY: These last several months - they've been filled with activities, like breakdancing and soccer and swimming.

DANIEL: Turn just a little bit, then...

NADWORNY: As I'm interviewing Daniel, his dad arrives home from working in New York City, and he heads straight to me.

YEVGENIY BIZYAYEV: Please don't mention...

NADWORNY: Yeah.

Y BIZYAYEV: ...You know.

NADWORNY: He's making sure I got Kristina's message. Aurora, the kindergarten - it's off the table.

Y BIZYAYEV: He's still probably in love with her.

NADWORNY: Since we visited in November, Kristina sought out a psychologist at an event for Ukrainian refugees.

K BIZYAYEV: So I asked about the situation of Aurora, and she said that it's fine to talk when he set up this conversation, not you. Just don't remind him about that.

NADWORNY: And so they've been avoiding it. And we do, too. Instead, we talk about football. Daniel is now a Bills fan.

DANIEL: Let's see. I think I know this.

NADWORNY: And he's gotten some new books in Russian and Ukrainian to fill those empty shelves.

DANIEL: Oh, my goodness. That looks, like, so creepy.

NADWORNY: What does it say?

DANIEL: Oh, I can't read in Russian and Ukrainian. Yeah, it's kind of weird.

NADWORNY: This new strategy - staying busy - Kristina says it's actually been working.

K BIZYAYEV: It took time for him to understand that we are not going to see each other for a while.

NADWORNY: Daniel's really happy, she tells me a number of times.

K BIZYAYEV: Now he talks about her, like, less and less.

NADWORNY: Maybe someday, she hopes, Daniel and Aurora will be reunited. Maybe when the war in Ukraine is over, and they can share their new lives and new friends, and neither of them will be sad.

(SOUNDBITE OF CMJ, BEN JAMMIN BEATS AND CHILL SELECT'S "CHANGING SEASONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.