When she left Ukraine, an opera singer made room for a most precious possession

Earlier this year in Khmelnytskyi, western Ukraine, Olha Abakumova, an opera singer, and her husband, Ihor, a tubist, put their then-7-year-old daughter Zlata on a pile of blankets in the bathtub to sleep. If a missile were to strike, the bathroom seemed like the safest place in their ninth-floor apartment.

The Khmelnytskyi Philharmonic Orchestra, where they both worked, initially closed after Russia’s invasion. A month later, it reopened and the orchestra kept having concerts, raising money for the war effort.

Olha and Ihor were determined to remain in Ukraine even while many of their neighbors fled. They believed the war would end quickly. But one starry and particularly quiet night in March, they heard an eerie whistling sound. They soon learned that Russia had attacked the nearby city of Lviv, where Olha had made her debut at the Lviv National Opera almost a decade ago. That was when they decided to leave.

Today, Olha and her daughter are living in a leafy suburb of Boston with Olha’s sister, Liliia Kachura, and her family. Liliia moved to the U.S. eight years ago and now lives in Sudbury, Mass., with her Ukrainian-born husband, Sasha Verbitsky, and their two young sons.

In late April, President Biden announced the Uniting for Ukraine program, which allows U.S. citizens to sponsor Ukrainians to come to the U.S. When Verbitsky heard about it, he immediately called Olha, encouraging her to apply. Men of military age still have to remain in the country, so Ihor would stay in Ukraine. Within a few weeks, Olha’s application was approved. In May, mother and daughter were on a 14-hour bus journey from Khmelnytskyi to Warsaw.

Olha and Zlata carried one small suitcase. In it they put toiletries, clothes and shoes. They also carried a few items with sentimental value: Olha’s mother’s 50-year-old Vyshyvanka, a traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirt; Zlata’s favorite stuffed animal, a turtle; and — most important for Olha — as much sheet music as Olha could stuff inside.

“I have a lot of different Ukrainian and Russian music, but when I fled, I took only the Ukrainian arias,” says Olha. “The Ukrainian works are very important to me. They connect me with my motherland, culture and my roots.”

When mother and daughter arrived at Logan airport in Boston, Verbitsky was there to greet them and take them home. Soon after, Olha found a free piano advertised on Facebook. Verbitsky and Kachura arranged to get the piano for Olha’s birthday. It’s now in the children’s playroom, where she practices and sings with her sheet music from Ukraine.

“When I’m singing, I see pictures in front of my eyes,” Olha says. “The words and music move through me and take me back to Ukraine.”

Some lines, like the last ones in the song “My Ukraine,” bring her to tears.

You walked through thorns to reach the dreamed-about stars.

You planted goodness in souls, like grains in the soil.

This past August, hundreds of Ukrainians gathered in a churchyard in Boston to celebrate their Independence Day. Olha came dressed in a mint-colored Vyshyvanka. When she sang the Ukrainian national anthem, people stopped what they were doing and stood at attention.

Her melodic voice carried across the churchyard, past a jungle gym full of playing children, through the tents where vendors were selling Ukrainian souvenirs and T-shirts. People who had been heaping their plates with homemade cabbage rolls, pierogis and sausages paused to listen.

In August, Zlata celebrated her birthday in the U.S. with her mother, aunt, uncle and cousins. But her father, Ihor, could only congratulate his daughter over video chat from Khmelnytskyi.

Olha worries about her family still in Ukraine, some of them fighting on the front lines, and dreams of a reunion.

“I hope the war will end soon,” she says. “I believe it will, but at what cost?”

Jodi Hilton is a Boston area photojournalist. Her work is focused on migration and minorities. She contributes to numerous newspapers and magazines including National Public Radio’s website.

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