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Young Ukrainian athletes depart after three-week trip to Minnesota

As war rages with Russia, the Ukrainian players and coaches are still appealing to the United States for humanitarian aid.

BLAINE, Minn. — After three weeks in Minnesota, Andrii Ketsuk's perception of American soccer ⁠—  which he calls football ⁠— has changed drastically. 

His Ukrainian team, known as FC Minaj, beat four U.S. teams at the USA Cup in Blaine this month, but lost the championship game by one goal to a squad from Evanston, Ill., on July 16. 

Then, four days later, Ketsuk visited Allianz Field and watched Minnesota United drill Everton F.C. of the English Premier League by the score of 4-0. 

"We didn't believe it!" Ketsuk said with a smile. "Maybe America will be great at football."

Win or lose, the sport brings light to the young Ukrainians during a time of crisis. Thanks to a sponsorship by a Twin Cities nonprofit named SOURCE, a total of 55 Ukrainian players, coaches and family members got the chance to compete in the USA Cup and take a summer tour of the Upper Midwest. 

The under-16 boys' team and under-14 girls' team capped off their trip Monday evening with a scrimmage at the National Sports Center, as they prepare to head back to Eastern Europe on Tuesday. Some will seek safe havens in neighboring countries such as Latvia or Slovakia, while others like Andrii Ketsuk will return home to relatively safe areas in far western Ukraine. 

"It is a miracle. When our coach said we are going to America, we said, 'Are you kidding?'" said Ketsuk, a native of Uzhhorod, where FC Minaj is based. "It's a great opportunity to stay focused on football, because we have a war in Ukraine."

Credit: KARE 11
Andrii Ketsuk, 15, hails from far western Ukraine.

The war is never far from these young athletes' minds. 

Although most of the players on FC Minaj hail from the western part of the country, some have evacuated from central or eastern Ukraine, all touched in some way by the war with Russia. 

Vasylisa Babkina, a 13-year-old on the Ukrainian girls' team, said most of her family has fled to Norway. They recently learned their home in Soledar, located in war-torn Donetsk Oblast near the eastern border with Russia, was destroyed. 

Credit: KARE 11
Vasylisa Babkina, 13, evacuated with her family to Norway.

Sitting on the bench during the girls' scrimmage on Monday, Bankina said little about having to return to Europe, but she did say she enjoyed her first trip to the United States.

"It's fun. Really fun," she said, adding that she's made friends with American kids. "It's a nice place and I like it."

Rudolf Balazhinec, a Ukrainian pastor and head coach of the under-16 FC Minaj boys' team, said the trip to Minnesota has been therapeutic. All of the players have now obtained 10-year visas, meaning they can return to the United States to work or attend college in the next decade. 

"The exercises, the hard work, the joy ⁠— especially the joy," Balazhinec said. "It gives you the chance to heal the trauma and recover yourself and rebuild your foundation."

Credit: KARE 11
Head coach Rudolf Balazhinec guided his under-16 Ukrainian team to the championship game at the USA Cup in Blaine this month.

Carol Hondlik, a Minnesotan who hosted three Ukrainians for the tournament this month, shared some insight into the psychological toll of the war. One of her house guests, a 12-year-old girl, grew visibly upset during an outing to Lake Minnetonka when a plane flew overhead and was triggered by the proximity of the small Anoka County-Blaine Airport to the National Sports Center. 

"I asked her mother, 'What was happening?' She said, 'Well, we've been near the bombs. We've seen airplanes. So, every time she sees a plane, she cringes,'" Hondlik said. "By taking a pause, we've seen that many of them have trauma. Some haven't seen the bombs, some haven't seen the destruction ⁠— their trauma is a little different, but it's still there."

Andrii Ketsuk, the 15-year-old from Uzhhorod, said his western city near the Slovakian border "is the safest region, so it's okay." Still, it's impossible for him to ignore the crisis, particularly with thousands of domestic refugees from eastern Ukraine flooding to Uzhhorod each week. 

"Pray for Ukraine. Pray for refugees. Pray for orphans. Pray for our soldiers," Ketsuk said. "The best thing is to pray, and to ask God to stop the war."

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