Anne-Marie Welsh

WARREN — Exactly one day after Russia began its unprovoked assault on Ukraine, Father Richard Tomasone, pastor of

Students at St. Joseph School, Warren, wave the signs and artwork they made to
greet their new friends, two Ukrainian students who have escaped to Slovakia with
their mother as a result of the assault on their country by Russia. Photo/Anne-Marie

St. Joseph Parish in Warren and its mission church, St. Luke, Youngsville, received a text message.  

          It was from Barbora Fabianova-Hajasova, a former Slovakian exchange student he had coached to a state basketball championship during the 2000-2001 season at Kennedy Catholic High School, Hermitage. She and her husband, Brano, were considering taking in a refugee family. What did he think?

          “I told her I thought it was wonderful,” Father Tomasone said.

          Emboldened, the young family cast aside concerns about politics and safety and opened their home and hearts to Olga and her two children, Ivan, 11, and Sasha, 9. Bojnice, the town where Barbora and Brano live, already has accepted close to 200 refugees.

          It’s not that they don’t have means. Barbora played professional basketball on the Slovakia national women’s team; Brano is a dentist. They have opted not to accept government assistance available to those taking in refugees.  

          But Father Tomasone said Barbora is the kind of person who would have taken in refugees even if she had had to squeeze them into her home.

          “She grew up behind the Iron Curtain,” he explained. “She understands crisis. She understands these people could lose everything.”

          It took Olga, Ivan and Sasha three full days to travel the 800 miles from their home in Kyiv by car, bus and train through Poland to western Slovkia. They left with one hour’s notice, grabbing birth certificates, passports, basic clothing and textbooks, struggling to keep their wits about them as bombs were falling nearby. They had no choice but to leave their husband and father behind to fight.

Left to right, Olga, Sasha and Ivan enjoy their Zoom 
encounter from Slovakia with students in Warren. Barbora
Hajasova is seated between the children.

          Even as compassion and sympathy overwhelm people across the world, it is impossible to comprehend the depth of the plight of the Ukrainians. Barbora had thought she would take a photo of the family upon their arrival, but when the moment came, she could only enter into the moment of welcome.

          “It was too emotional because they finally knew they were safe,” Barbora told Father Tomasone. A while later, tears flowed again when the family was reunited for a brief video conversation.

          Once Father Tomasone began telling others about the situation, there was no stopping the desire to help. At the end of Masses the following weekend, he put out a small basket.

          “I asked for prayers and invited people to donate if they wanted,” he said. A few days later, he was able to wire Barbora $5,266. Since that time, the total collected has surpassed $20,000.

          When the first funds arrived, Olga and Barbora asked if they could share the donations with others in need.

          “We just want to help refugees,” Father Tomasone told her. So, thanks to a connection first forged on a basketball court in Pennsylvania, desperately needed cash is now going directly from those making donations into the hands of people in dire need.

           Included among future donations will be coins now being collected at St. Joseph School. But the effort is about much more than raising funds.

          “There’s always a little buy-in with a friendly coin challenge,” said Carrie Pearson, principal at St. Joe’s. “But the overall generosity has been really eye-opening for everybody. My message with the children is more about peace, prayer and thinking of ways to help others at this time. That is Christ’s message to us.” She said that students are grasping the importance of the moment and the connection they feel.
        As an educator, Pearson admits there is a fine line between creating awareness and not stoking fear in the students. She and Father Tomasone collaborated on the opportunity March 18, setting up the Zoom between the

St. Joseph School fourth-graders Elijah Dodge
and Degan Peterson, top, and third-grader Ashlynn
Zawacki listen to Ivan and Sasha's stories.
Photos/Anne-Marie Welsh

entire school in Warren and Barbora, Olga, Ivan and Sasha in Slovakia.

          The video exchange was everything one might imagine.

          The students at St. Joe’s opened with a song of peace, complete with hand gestures. They eagerly pulled out signs and drawings of the Ukrainian flag they had made, waving them in the air to make sure their new friends could see them. Then representatives from each grade came forth to ask questions ranging from, “What were you able to bring with you?” to “Do you have family and friends who are still in Ukraine?” Sasha and Ivan had received copies of the questions in advance and, with Barbora’s help, recounted some of their experiences, mostly in English. The fact that they’d had to leave their dog and cat behind resonated deeply.  

          Barbora and Olga wrapped their arms around Ivan and Sasha, providing encouragement as they shared not only their difficulties but also moments of respite, such as visits to the local zoo in Slovakia. The students at St. Joe’s erupted with enthusiastic applause when they learned that Sasha and Ivan were receiving good grades in math, biology and geography in the Slovakian school in which they already are enrolled.

          Before the exchange ended, Father Tomasone offered a few words followed by a blessing.

Father Rick Tomasone, pastor of St. Joseph Parish,
Warren, has kept in touch with his former exchange
student, Barbora Fabianova-Hajasova
of Slovakia, for decades.  Photo/Anne-Marie Welsh

          “It is a long distance between us, but because we care for everybody, that love makes it a lot shorter,” he said. “So, we’re very close to you and we want you to know that we will continue to pray for you and for all the refugees from the Ukraine, that the war will end soon and that you can go back home and be reunited with your families.”

          Barbora then said she had one more thing to share.

          “Yesterday, Olga and her family told us that when the war is over, they will adopt a child from Ukraine,” she said. “They know that many, many children lost their parents. They don’t even know what’s going to happen, but they know they will take another child into their home. I think this is one of the biggest things I ever heard, you know?” she said, moved by the generosity at such a precarious time.

          The teachers smiled hard as they took in the moment.

Mrs. Rita Cecco chats with students at St. Joseph School after the
Zoom meeting.  Photo/Anne-Marie Welsh

          “It was a wonderful experience for my students,” Mrs. Rita Cecco said as she herded her third graders back to the classroom following the encounter. “It makes it very real.”

          “Ivan said his favorite animal at the zoo was the owl. Is that the national bird of Slovakia?” a student asked as he packed up his things for the day.

          “We’ll have to look that up,” Mrs. Cecco replied. 

          “Seeing those children, you know?” she continued, shaking her head and looking upward with a quiet aside. “The heartbreak. We are blessed beyond words here.”

Click here to see the video of students at St. Joseph singing to their friends in Slovakia

Those interested in supporting the effort in Warren can send checks made out to St. Joseph to the parish at 600 Pennsylvania Ave. W, Warren, PA 16365. Please include "Refugees" on the memo line. Additional options for supporting Ukrainian refugees through parishes, schools and other outreach efforts in the Diocese of Erie can be found through a link at