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Western Mass. father who rushed to Poland to bring back Ukrainian daughter says he's 'not a hero'

When Russia invaded Ukraine in early February, Millers Falls, Massachusetts, resident David Korpiewski became very concerned, very quickly. Korpiewski is a father of four —
three of his children live here, with 10-year-old Mary in Ukraine.

"Mary was in Dnipro, which is on the eastern front, surrounded by three different armies from the north, the south and the east," Korpiewski recalled. "So time was very limited."

The decision to bring Mary to the United States was easy. The process was not. To get to Ukraine, David needed an expedited passport renewal. He also needed to coordinate with Mary's mother, Iryna, who was out of Ukraine on a business trip.

"She was in Vienna and then Mary was with the grandparents in Dnipro, and then the war broke out," Korpiewski said. "And then Iryna made her way back to the Polish border, but at that point, everything in Ukraine was shut down. No trains, no buses, no planes. So Iryna's sitting in Poland in a refugee house. So, she was totally beside herself, distraught. And then Mary was with the grandparents. And at that time, there was no way to get her."

Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency was closely watching the Russians advancing towards Ukraine's nuclear power infrastructure.

"It's the largest power plant in all of Europe, and it's 50 miles from where Mary was," he said. "And if they did blow it up, the reality is she would have been cooked by radiation along with everybody else in Dnipro."

It was decided through phone conversations that the only way Mary would be able to escape Ukraine would be for Iryna, Mary's mother, to return to Dnipro and accompany her on a train back to Poland. Korpiewski said Iryna left for Dnipro on March 5, and he flew out on March 6.

On March 7, all of them — Iryna and Mary and Korpiewski — reached the train station in Poland.

"I get there and I'm waiting, and I call [Iryna]. She calls me, and she's like, 'I'm waiting right in front of the station.' I'm like, 'I'm in front of the station with the car.' ... Come to find out, that particular station is so big, it has two sides to it," he recalled. "So they're on one side. I'm on the other side. So ... once we figured that out, then I'm like, all right, I just ditched the car somewhere and then found my way through the station."

As Korpiewski explained to NEPM's Carrie Healy, he found Mary and Iryna before they found him.

David Korpiewski: I kind of walked up and tapped my daughter on the head and she spins around quick like, "Hey!" And then I'm like "Mary! обними меня," which means hug me in Russian. And so, I hugged them. And it was it was a huge relief. It was a huge relief, I hugged them both.

But it was interesting because, after that, we hugged, and I carried all their bags and went back to the car. But then when we got to the hotel, I realized that my body was still in complete stress mode. My mind is relieved that I'm with them, but then my body is, like, totally stressed out. I mean, I lost eight pounds in that week alone. It took like two days to actually get out of stress mode to realize, okay, they're safe, they're with me, everything's fine, they're out of Ukraine. But it was something that, you know, you wouldn't wish on anyone.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: So it's been at least a week or more since Mary has been living here in Massachusetts with you. How is she doing?

So she's been good. Real good, actually. I think she kind of treats it like an adventure. One second, my daughter is here. Hi, Mary. [They speak briefly, some in Russian.] I speak some Russian. As a matter of fact, my Russian has been getting better because I had to. She doesn't speak a lot of English, but she speaks some English.

I think everything here is an adventure for her because everything's completely different. So, from the light switches to the food, to the way the showers work, everything is absolutely and completely different than they are in Poland and Ukraine. So it's been interesting for her to have these new experiences and she's actually playing on my treadmill right now because apparently, she has no idea how treadmills work. For her, it's exciting. But overall, she's doing really good. She's doing actually better than I expected.

Do you have plans for the future? Let's say the war ends and there's still a Ukraine to go back to. What is the future for Mary, for Iryna, for your family?

So, at this stage, actually, I mean, Kiev's being destroyed. So I don't know if there's going to be much infrastructure left. I know the schools have all shut down. And where Iryna normally lives has been obliterated. So ... we don't actually know if her apartment even exists anymore. And I'm not sure what's going to happen.

But, for now, I'm actually enrolling her in a local school system. And the school system has been fantastic. They told me they're going to help get a Russian-speaking translator to help her out. So she's going to be going to school, probably finishing up this academic year in this country.

I got her mother situated in Poland, with an apartment, and she's going to start looking for a job over there. So I predict in the future, and when Mary goes back to her mother, most likely she may be in Poland for a while. I'm not sure if there is the ability really for them to return to Ukraine, even if the war ends, soon. There's just hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of damage to the infrastructure there. It's going to be devastation for a while. And I think that Mary will be affected and will probably need to stay here with me. At least I can provide her a home and school and other things. And it'd be good for her to learn some English, I think.

So, in this whole journey and process, what have you learned about yourself along the way?

Well, I definitely learned that your most important thing in the world are your kids. I have three other kids, so I have four kids total. And if I had to go in Ukraine myself, I would have done it, get a bulletproof vest and was going to ready to rock and roll if I needed to, to figure out a way to make it happen.

But, you know, a lot of people look at my story as though I'm some kind of hero, but I think a lot of parents would do whatever they had to do for their kids to save them. So I think it reinforces the fact that we're told to work and give all our time to work, but then when the poop hits the fan, it's really our kids that matter, our families that matter. So I find myself taking walks with Mary now and sitting and watching movies with her, because I think that's what's actually important.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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