OUT OF HARM’S WAY - Reading residents Walt Tuvell and Linda King (left) welcome Olena Tokova (right) and her son David, at Logan Airport. As part of the Uniting for Ukraine program, mother and son will be able to stay in the United States for up to two years.

READING — During the summer of 2001 Olena Tokova enjoyed what seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit the United States.

Then 12 years old, Tokova traveled from Ukraine to receive health care as part of the Chernobyl Children’s Project. During her stay she and another child were hosted by a local family in Reading who welcomed them with open arms, sparking a connection that would endure for more than two decades.

Now in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Walt Tuvell and Linda King’s home has once again become her


Tokova, now a young mother with a 1-year-old named David, fled the country with her son following the outbreak of war. After spending a few months in Poland they eventually accepted an invitation from Tuvell and King to stay with them in Reading again.

“We have both enjoyed having her here so much,” King said. “We knew Olena, we knew what kind of person she is and we knew that she’s someone we could live with for the long term.”

Tokova and her son arrived this past June, and as part of the Uniting for Ukraine program she and David will be able to stay in the country for up to two years. Difficult as the circumstances are, Tokova is grateful to be back in a familiar environment and for the chance to raise her child in a safe community far from the horrors of war.

“I’m happy to be here and I’m definitely thankful to Linda and Walt for inviting us,” Tokova said. “For this opportunity to be safe, and for their kindness.”

Coming of age

Tokova remembers her first visit to Reading fondly. Back when she was 12 things were simpler, and the things that stand out are the memories she made with the family.

“I remember we traveled a lot,” she said, adding that she was particularly close with King and her daughter Suzie, who was then 7. “We went to a lot of different museums and events, we met a number of kids from Belarus and it was a good time.”

Following her return to Ukraine Tokova grew up like any normal young woman. She went to school, graduated from university, began her career, got married and started a family.

All of that was upended once Russia began its invasion. Due to the state of emergency her husband was unable to leave the country and subsequently joined the Ukrainian military. He has now spent the past year defending their country, but in the meantime Russian attacks intensified and it quickly became apparent that, for David’s sake, they had to get as far away as possible.

“She probably would never have come if it weren’t for David,” Tuvell said. “Her husband and parents back in Kyiv all made the mutual decision to get David out of harm’s way.”

Since their arrival Tokova’s contact with family back home has been limited due to the frequent blackouts caused by Russian attacks, but they are still able to FaceTime whenever possible. Watching David grow up without getting to see his father or grandparents has been difficult, but she and her hosts have made it their mission to make sure he grows up in a loving family environment — a home away from home.

“I try to spend all my time with David because he’s my family and it’s my goal to protect him,” she said. “Not just from war but everything he’s been through in his life.”

Embraced by the community

When word got out that Tokova and her son were coming, the Reading community rallied around her. King said friends and neighbors donated everything they needed as far as baby equipment, supplies and toys, which was a tremendous help and made the family’s transition much easier.

“We were very fortunate,” King said. “People are very upset with what’s going on in Ukraine, and you could write a check but that’s impersonal. This was a way that’s personal, a way that you could actually do something.”

Since their arrival the family has settled into a comfortable routine. Most days David wakes up early and has breakfast, and then they go to the playground or library. The Burbank YMCA has given Tokova free membership, so they often go there and take swimming lessons, and some days they’ll take the train to Boston and walk around.

Though the future is uncertain, Tokova has given thought to seeking permanent residency or citizenship in the U.S. Even if Ukraine successfully repels Russia the country will face a long and hard reconstruction, and it may be a long time before the country is truly safe.

“She can’t visit her grandparents graves because they have mined the cemetery. If you go to the cemetery you will literally step on a land mine,” King said. “There are these little incendiary devices that look pretty, like toys, and when kids pick them up they explode in the child’s hand. So she worries if it would even be safe for David when she went home.”

As the winter turns to spring experts predict both Ukraine and Russia will conduct major offensives in the coming months that could ultimately decide the war. Though Ukraine has exceeded expectations at every turn, the country is still facing the fight of its life and Tokova hopes Americans will keep her country front of mind like they have through the war’s first year.

“I think the most important thing that you can do is support Ukraine,” Tokova said.

One way Reading residents can do that is by helping other Ukrainians who have fled to America, and this Sunday at 11:30 a.m. there will be a Welcome Circle meeting at the Old South Church in which community members will discuss just that. If there are any locals interested in hosting a Ukrainian refugee, more information on the Uniting for Ukraine program can be found here:

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.