NEW HAVEN, Conn. (WTNH) — Yulia Stelmakh woke her son up at 6 a.m. on Feb. 24 after she heard bombs go off. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, she told him, had begun.

“We didn’t believe that war was possible, so we didn’t believe,” she said. “Yes, we heard a lot of talk, but we didn’t believe it.”

They left, assuming it would be one or two days of conflict. They ended up at the Belarus border, where they spent a week. There was no food or doctors, and Yulia said that water wasn’t available because it was frozen.

Yulia and her son, Oleksander, who goes by Sasha, had applied for American visas before the war. Sasha wanted to study computer science, which is now his major at Southern Connecticut State University.

After hearing his story, a New Haven donor is now paying the 17-year-old student’s tuition.

They’ve left a lot behind. Yulia said that Russian troops killed many people in their village. She had to leave her parents behind, she said, but they are doing ok.

“My brother and I understood that they are all trapped together, and I understood that someone needed to go, and it was the right decision,” she said.

Watch the full interview to learn more.