On February, 24, 2022, Americans looked on in horror as Russia invaded Ukraine in a major escalation of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War. Our television and computer screens were filled with images of destroyed hospitals and schools, fleeing refugees at the borders, and Ukrainian soldiers defending their country from Russian assaults. While scenes from the conflict were painful to watch, for most of us the war remained far removed from our daily lives. Sixteen-year-old Sofiia Berestetska was not so lucky. Living near the capital of Kyiv with her parents Alex and Halyna, she recalls “sheltering in the basement and listening to the explosions while trying to sleep and praying that nothing would happen to us.” A missile strike on the street in front of their building convinced her mother it was time to leave the country.
On March 1, Sofiia and Halyna fled to Poland, where more than five million other Ukranians sought refuge. It was a journey she’ll never forget. “There were so many people running and screaming. It was chaos as everyone tried to push their way onto the train. At one point my mother and I became separated. She was on the train while I was stuck outside. I saw fierce determination in her eyes to get me inside with her.” Having no time to tell her father goodbye, she remembers seeing him in tears on the platform watching them leave.
The train ride to Poland would take 8-hours with a mass of people fighting for limited space. “There were eight of us in a tiny room with two small beds. We sat four to a bed, while dozens of people stood in the corridors. There was nowhere to sleep and we had nothing to eat.” After the train ride and two long bus trips, Sofiia and her mother eventually arrived in Warsaw where they stayed for three months while waiting for the paperwork that would allow them to join her sister in the United States. She says, “The day I received my visa, I cried with happiness.”
It was early June when Sofiia and Halyna arrived in Philadelphia where they were welcomed with open arms by Sofiia’s sister Ksenia and Ksenia’s husband Michael Power. “It had been my dream to have Sofiia in America with me,” says Ksenia, who first came to the U.S. to play tennis as an undergraduate at the University of Akron. She and Michael met during their doctoral studies at Temple University, where Ksenia is an assistant professor of Kinesiology.
As a new school year approached for Sofiia, her family considered the options. Concerned for her adjustment to an American education, they decided on a private school where she would receive more personalized attention. As Michael’s sister Meghan was a 2005 Merion Mercy Academy graduate, MMA rose to the top of the list.
“One day, out of the blue, we got a call from Meghan Power, informing us of Sofiia’s situation,” says Eileen Killeen, Merion Mercy’s Director of Admissions. “We knew we were going to enroll her at Merion Mercy, no matter what.”
Sofiia recounts the many placement tests she had to take and how happy she was to be accepted to the school. She beams when speaking of Mrs. Killeen, whom she describes as “wonder woman.”
Killeen hasn’t been the only bright spot for Sofiia. In talking about her classmates, she says, “Everyone here is kind. They share their smiles and they help you. It is easy to make friends.”
The teachers have been equally welcoming. Sofiia believes, “Every teacher is the best. They want to help you. They are kind and open.” She notes how different school is here as compared to Ukraine. “There, it was only learning. There were none of the experiences I’ve had at Merion Mercy. There were no sports or other activities.”
Welcoming the opportunity to become involved outside of the classroom, Sofiia sought out Merion Mercy’s tennis team. Unbeknownst to coach Bob Campbell or Director of Athletics Shannon Fisher, this new Ukrainian student was not your average player. Fisher says, “Sofiia was definitely a surprise and has made a significant impact on our tennis program. She is an incredibly skilled and naturally talented competitor. We are so glad to have her here as a part of the Merion community.”
The admiration is mutual. Sofiia thanks Ms. Fisher, who, in addition to being “hard working and dedicated,” has been “nothing but kind and caring.”
Having played since she was five years old, upon arriving in this country, one of the first things Sofiia did was to find a place to train. She joined Legacy Youth Tennis and Education in Philadelphia and when fall sports began she was well-prepared to join the Merion Mercy team. After a successful regular season, in late October 2022, Sofiia and her doubles partner Ashley Gomes, a fellow junior, won the District 1 2A championship. The PIAA 2A state doubles tournament followed and the duo won all four of their matches in straight sets, bringing home the state title for the first time in Merion Mercy’s history.
“Everyone talks about the state tournament,” says Sofiia, “but every point in every match was very important and special in getting us there.”
Where academics are concerned, Sofiia is making great strides. Thanks to her sister and American family members’ persistence, her English has improved remarkably since she arrived in the country less than six months ago. “I didn’t speak for two weeks after I got here; I wasn’t being shy, I was just uncomfortable trying to speak the language,” she says. Since then, she has learned that attempting to speak a new language is essential for actually learning it. Her brother-in-law’s large family has proved to be great for testing out her newfound skills, and studying grammar and literature in English classes has been invaluable. “Many of my classmates told me grammar is boring, but I’ve found it very helpful!” Sofiia says. She admits that Google Translate also comes in handy.
When asked what’s next for her, Sofiia explains that she intends to stay in the United States. “I want to compete in tennis at the Division I level in college,” she says, adding, “American students have both sports and studies. It’s wonderful.”
Eileen Killeen knows she will be quite welcome wherever she goes. “Sofiia’s been a gift every moment since she’s been here.”
For Sofiia, the greatest gift has been her family. “I wouldn’t be here without them, and I am forever grateful for the sacrifices they have made.”
- Merion Mercy Academy