Two 16-year-old Ukrainian refugees navigate new life in San Antonio

Ivan Romanko and Aksinia Petrovska were only 14 years old when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

By Kayla Padilla, Texas Public RadioFebruary 27, 2024 9:45 am,

From Texas Public Radio:

Ukrainians in San Antonio held a rally over the weekend to commemorate two years since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The rally featured a ceremony called “Illuminating the Path Forward” where older Ukrainians pass a bundle of wheat to the children. This represents that children are the hope and future of the country.

It’s estimated that 1,800 Ukrainian children have been killed or injured since the start of the war. According to UNICEF, 1.8 million Ukrainian children have become refugees in neighboring countries while 2.5 million children are internally displaced within Ukraine.

Some of these refugees have ended up in San Antonio. This includes 16-year-old Aksinia Petrovska and 16-year-old Ivan Romanko. They were only 14 years old at the start of the war.

Aksinia was born in San Antonio but had lived her entire life in Ukraine up until the invasion. On February 24, 2022, she and her family woke up to the sound of explosions outside of their house.

“When the war started, it was 4:52 in the morning. I woke up to a loud explosion in our neighborhood,” she said.

They phoned her dad who was at work and explained what they were hearing. He told them to remain calm and alert. Aksenia remembers that her mom began mopping the floor out of anxiety.

“You know when there’s war outside the window, it’s not [a] great choice but I think her mind was just protecting her like that,” she said.

Ukranians gather for a rally in front of San Antonio City Hall marking two years since Russia’s invasion on Saturday Feb. 24, 2024.
Kayla Padilla / Texas Public Radio

Aksinia’s grandmother was living in San Antonio at the time. She met Aksinia, her mom and her sister in Poland to help them flee Ukraine. Her dad would join them in the States about six months later.

Aksinia would spend summers visiting her grandparents in San Antonio, so it was familiar to her when she arrived. Still, she doesn’t plan to stay here long-term and hopes to graduate high school early to focus on helping her country.

“I’m gonna go back to Ukraine. I want to volunteer a lot. I want to stock medicine [and] supplies. I want to donate and make fundraisings. I think I can go to the frontline army as [a] combat nurse,” she said.

For 16-year-old Ivan Romanko, San Antonio is a foreign city. He was forced to flee Ukraine with his mom after being kidnapped by Russian forces.

The then 14-year-old was riding his bike in Ukraine when a black van with Russian soldiers approached and kidnapped him.

“One of the Russians put a rifle to my head,” he said.

The kidnappers contacted his family and asked them for food and money in exchange for Ivan. His father was able to negotiate for his safe return. He encouraged Ivan to flee the country.

“He said that I [should] leave with [my] family [and] immediately get somewhere safe.”

After the negotiation, Ivan’s father was then kidnapped. He remains in Russian captivity to this day.

Distraught about his father, Ivan found a sponsor in San Antonio through Facebook and made the move with his mom. His father communicates with the family through brief notes that say, “I’m alive,” or “I miss my family.”

“Father is a gold man for me. I love him so much. He means so much to me. I’m still waiting for him,” said Ivan.

16-year-old Aksinia is holding on to hope for her own future.

“Life does not end after a failed relationship or a bad grade. It still goes on. Life does not end after war,” she said.

At the rally, Aksinia sang an upbeat Ukrainian pop song outside City Hall. With a smile on her face, she was proof of Ukrainian resistance happening right here in the city.

If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation to support it here. Your gift helps pay for everything you find on and Thanks for donating today.