Friday, June 14, 2024

Forced to flee Ukraine, Lely’s Sofiia Kiritsa, Oleksandra Rubanova win SWFL Courage Award

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Sofiia Kiritsa could hear the air raid sirens in the distance and watched from her dorm room as Russian tanks drove down streets on the outskirts of Kyiv. Those tanks decided which buildings to open fire on, with Kiritsa wondering if the building in which she stood was next.

Still traumatized by the events of February 22, 2022, Kiritsa was forced to go into hiding immediately after Russia’s offensive took place with a close friend and teammate. During that haunting phase of hiding, Kiritsa’s father was en route to rescue his daughter.

Looking to avoid Russian helicopters and forces, Kiritsa’s father drove through wooded areas and dark roads without headlights. A normal commute from her home in Chernivtsi, located in southwest Ukraine, takes about nine hours. It ultimately took Kiritsa’s father 24 hours to get to where she was.

Then 14 years old, Kiritsa had already struggled with the prospect of having to leave her family and home country in the wake of the war with Russia. She had to get acclimated to a temporary home in Massachusetts before moving to Naples last year with another Ukrainian refugee, Oleksandra Rubanova, who had fled the country as well. They started at Lely High last fall and were members of the Trojans basketball team this winter.

Their move underscores a reality that many Ukrainians are facing: being thousands of miles away from home, reading about, and seeing the damage being done by an enemy that doesn’t show any intention of stopping anytime soon.

More: The 2024 Naples Daily News All-Area Girls Basketball Team sponsored by Babcock Ranch

“We just want everyone to know that the war is still going, and people are still dying every day,” Rubanova said. “We just want as many people as possible to help with donations. We really want to finally end this war, and we want to start to live a new life.”

For their perseverance, Kiritsa and Rubanova are this year’s recipients of the Southwest Florida Courage Award. They will be honored at the Southwest Florida Sports Award event set for June 6 at Suncoast Credit Union Arena on the campus of FSW.

“What these kids are going through, we’ll never understand,” Lely girls basketball coach Jalen Outten said. “We can sit here and say we do, but to watch them talk on the phone with their mothers every single day during lunchtime, it’s tough. It’s tough as a coach, a mentor, it’s tough.”

A new chapter

Kiritsa and Rubanova have known each other since September 2021, crossing paths on the basketball circuit as Kiritsa joined Rubanova’s club, which was centered in Kyiv. To their friends, Kiritsa is known as Sonia, and Rubanova as Sasha.

“We didn’t really talk,” Rubanova said of the first time they met. “It was just, Sasha, Sonia. It was nothing special.”

Upon Russia’s invasion, Kiritsa, 17, and Rubanova, 16, managed to flee to Latvia with a group of teachers and coaches before that became an unsustainable option moving forward after living there for 13 months. In May 2023, the two eventually moved to Massachusetts, as the group of kids needed a place to live, along with stability in their lives after months of the contrary.

Enter Elena Shaw, who had connections at the Ukranian American Youth Association. Currently the legal guardian of the two children as a Naples resident, Shaw got word that a handful of kids had nowhere to go with their teachers and coaches. The UAYA was desperately looking to find homes for the children in Massachusetts, but there weren’t enough families to meet the need.

“When the war began, my friends reached out to those teachers and coaches to see if everybody’s OK,” said Shaw, who was born in Odesa, Ukraine, and moved to the U.S. in 2000. “One of them responded back, saying ‘I’m not OK. I’m with a bunch of kids that I grabbed at the last minute, and I got permission from their parents to take them out of the country and to be safe.’ They just didn’t know what to do next. I got involved helping them financially, sending them packages, that’s how the relationship started. That’s how I came across the whole group of kids, two of them are Sasha and Sonia. When another year went by and they had nowhere to go, they couldn’t stay in Latvia.

“My friends in the United States said maybe we could take care of them. They were trying to find families in Massachusetts for each family to take one or two children to live with them for the next school year. There were not enough people who wanted to do that. When they reached out to me asking if I knew anyone in Florida, I thought I did, but taking someone in for more than a weekend is very difficult. After discussing options with my family, we ended up with two girls. That’s how I got to know Sasha and Sonia.”

Rubanova was more comfortable moving into a new setting than Kiritsa. Rubanova got to Naples in August 2023, just in time for the start of Lely’s school year. Learning English growing up, she acclimated to American school quicker than Kiritsa, who arrived in September after competing for the Ukranian U17 National Team knowing little English.

“I started to learn English three years ago,” Kiritsa said. “It’s hard, but I’m trying.”

Kiritsa’s anxiety being thousands of miles from home haunted her. She was making herself sick just hours prior to her first day as a student at Lely, beyond scared about what American school might be like.

“You can’t leave her to walk into the new school by herself, right?” Shaw’s daughter, Ellie Gevanthor, asked her mom.

“Are you coming in with me?” Shaw recalled a nervous Kiritsa asking her on the way to school.

Over time, Kiritsa and Rubanova got closer and the friendship grew. Rubanova became a close confidant, telling Kiritsa where to go in school, how to do things, along with talking about the process of what American school was like.

“I was very surprised how nice everyone in the school was,” Kiritsa said.

Trust the process

There were learning curves for everyone involved.

For Shaw, it was adding two girls to the household along with preparing her own daughter for high school graduation. For Outten, it was conveying the right message to his team when he got word they’d be coming to the school. And for Kiritsa and Rubanova, it was having a guardian who constantly kept them busy and on the go, which was intentional to keep their minds off the war.

“I think it’s a different experience,” Shaw said. “I can’t even explain it. You learn how to be more politically correct with teenagers, especially those who are not your own children. I know how to appreciate my own child more, because I realize when you’re with someone every day, you lose sight of what people are about, and the good and bad that comes with it. By having two kids from a different country which I’m familiar with, I kind of appreciate everything that kids go through, everything my family goes through. I probably got better with people, how to be more patient, how to explain things, how to be more of a role model for them and try to teach them by example.”

Outten’s message to the team took a while to get across.

“I wish I could say it was easy, but it wasn’t. It took a lot of explaining,” Outten said. “When they talked to each other, you’d think they’re talking about someone or if I’m talking and they’re talking, it’s disrespect. They’re really translating for each other. It took a while not only for the coaches but the players and for everybody to understand that this is going to be a process. They’re not trying to not fit in, they’re trying to communicate. One major point was during a game one time, Sonia, whose English is not as fluent as Sasha, was trying to explain to us that she wanted more screens but she couldn’t get it out as much. The players didn’t understand what she was saying.

“She told Sasha who translated it, and Sasha only gave us a few words: ‘She just wants you to move!’ It took time. Now, you can see they go around the other girls and say the little, small words like ‘bro’, or ‘damn’, or something like that. It’s funny now to look at it because you’d think they’ve always talked to each other. At the beginning, it was definitely different. They didn’t want to come in here and be big shots. They needed help, but they wouldn’t say it. It took us some time to get over that hump.”

Although the girls were getting acclimated to their new life, Shaw made sure they were held accountable. She treated them like any other teenager with rules and boundaries. They got to reap the benefits of living in Florida as rewards with trips to Busch Gardens and Miami, among other activities the family did together.

“I do try to wake up in the morning, check messages, send them updates and pictures of what I made them for breakfast, or for lunch, or the big mess in the room,” Shaw said of communicating with their families. “I told the girls, if you’re not going to behave and something is going wrong, I am going to tell your parents. They will be the first ones to know, and they will be discussing things with you. It happened a few times, with them getting in trouble. Parents do appreciate open conversation. They really appreciate to know the good and bad things that happened.”

A memorable finish with an unclear future

Overcoming those curves turned into positive memories.

Kiritsa, who watched videos of Stephen Curry on YouTube when she was in the first grade, became enamored with the three-point shot which started her love for basketball at seven years old. Rubanova found a love for the game four years later after taking up ballroom dancing as a child.

“The reason why I’m playing basketball is because of my mom and my first coach,” Kiritsa said. “Basketball was my first love.”

Watching those highlights inspired Kiritsa as well as Rubanova, who had career games against Canterbury. Kiritsa scored 34 points while Rubanova added 24, as the Trojans beat the Cougars 77-74 in double overtime on February 2. Both recalled it as their favorite moment from this season.

“It was last game before our district tournament,” Rubanova said. “It was a game against Canterbury School. It was a very tough game, and we won in two overtimes. Me and Sonia scored like five 3-pointers each, so it was good emotions.”

“It was one of the best games in my life, because we had two overtimes and I scored 34 points,” Kiritsa added. “It was really tough and it’s why I like this game.”

That game might’ve given Lely a spark. In the midst of a lengthy winning streak, the program achieved new heights, going 20-9 while winning the program’s first district crown in Outten’s third season. It was a remarkable turnaround after going 3-20 two seasons prior.

Draped with Ukranian flags around their necks after winning the district against Barron Collier, the two weren’t done. The win streak got up to an area-high 16 games, which included a regional quarterfinal win over Barron, a regional semifinal upset of top-seeded Parrish Community, and a highly competitive regional final against Port Charlotte, which Lely lost in the waning moments.

“It started with a big win against my uncle at Lehigh Senior High School,” Outten recalled of the 16-game win streak. “That was a big game for us. That was going into Christmas break. I explained to Sonia and them, we had to win this for bragging rights. They didn’t really understand it. It started from there, and we were rolling. The one thing I will say, especially about these two, there’s no big game for them.”

Soon thereafter, the accolades came. Kiritsa was named to CCAC First Team and Rubanova was named to CCAC Second Team. Kiritsa was a Naples Daily News First Team selection while Rubanova was named to Third Team by the Daily News.

“We were winning, but it was nothing for them. It was like, ‘Can we play again?’ They were just enjoying the moments,” Outten said. “Once we got to 9 or 10 wins, it turned into a more relaxed environment on trying to enjoy this process, taking it one game at a time. In that playoff game (against Port Charlotte), they had no idea that if they won, they were going to Lakeland. They had no idea because they were accustomed of the mindset of ‘We’re here to play, and we’re here to win.’

“This school as a whole before soccer won a district title in the winter, this school hadn’t won a district championship since 2019,” Outten said. “It was a long time for a lot of sports. We were talking about this before those two came. This was our motto, that’s what our goal was. It was great getting to the district finals. I would say since I’ve been here, we’ve had one first-team CCAC. This year we had one CCAC first team, second team and honorable mention. That was record-setting.”

As for their futures, it’s unclear whether or not Kiritsa or Rubanova will suit up for Lely next season. With the ongoing and ever-changing landscape back home, it’s hard for anyone involved to project what will happen later this year.

“The most difficult question to answer, is what is their future?” an emotional Shaw said. “Because we just don’t know. There is so much going on in Ukraine, they’ve been away from their families for two years. They miss everybody back home. They are torn. They really are. We don’t know if they can stay here. We don’t know if there is such a thing as education for them in the United States. We are taking baby steps and making short-term decisions. Any decisions we make, we discuss, all of us. It’s my family, my husband, my daughter, it’s the girls, it’s their parents.

“All of us agree that we cannot make long-term plans. We will look ahead for the next two to three months and when the time is right, we’ll discuss next steps that might be best for them.”

The two haven’t seen their families in over a year, with Rubanova last seeing her family in June and Kiritsa’s in August.

“It’s been hard because I’m used to seeing my parents and my brother every day,” Rubanova said. “I really want to see them finally. It’s nice here and our host family has been so nice to us, but I want to find a way where I can stay here but see my parents much more often. It’s my dream.”

“My life without parents is easy and hard, because before the war, I lived in Kyiv for almost one year,” Kiritsa added. “After that, I was in Latvia and the United States. I’m used to living without parents, but I really miss them. I miss my sister, my mom, and my dad, my grandmother. I always call my mom, text her and send her pictures. I want to see my family.”

Resiliency and determination have been common themes among Ukrainians, having displayed mental fortitude that hopes to carry them over the finish line when the war comes to an end.

“I want to everyone to know that in Ukraine, we win,” Kiritsa said. “I don’t know how long it will be, but I know that Ukraine will win.”

Follow Sports Reporter Alex Martin on X: @NP_AlexMartin. For the best sports coverage in Southwest Florida, follow @newspresssports and @ndnprepzone on Instagram.

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