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Uprooted from Ukraine, promising tennis player finds her footing on the court in NH

photo of Polina
Todd Bookman
The war in Ukraine forced Polina Makarenko, a promising tennis player, to relocate to a place she had never heard of before: New Hampshire.

During a flash of warm weather this winter, a circus of little kids runs around a Hampton tennis court.

At the net, Polina Makarenko, 17, conducts them with her racquet, single-handedly improving the tennis games of an entire neighborhood.

“Good job,” she tells them, despite a few whiffs.

For the past nine months, Polina has lived in Hampton Falls with her mother, Nina. They are refugees from the Ukrainian war; a family divided and forced to flee to New Hampshire, a place they’d never heard of.

Before the war, Polina was ranked in the top 50 youth girls tennis players in Ukraine. She dreamed of playing at the college level.

But after initially struggling in the U.S., Polina has settled into her new life, giving the occasional lesson to local kids while working to regain her own tennis form, and perhaps land a scholarship.

“I love this area,” Polina said recently, sitting inside the house owned by a local church where she and her mom have been staying. “Lots of trees. I see tree, tree, tree,” she laughs.

Like others who had to flee Ukraine since the war began, Polina has a seared-in memory of the day of the invasion. Inside her family’s apartment in Kyiv, the sound of rockets woke them around 4 a.m. Her father grabbed their important legal documents, and they went to another neighborhood in the city, where a relative had a house with a basement.

photo of Polina
Todd Bookman
The war in Ukraine forced Polina Makarenko, a promising tennis player, to relocate to a place she had never heard of before: New Hampshire.

“First day, we wait, just wait. We not believe,” she recalled. “Lots of rockets, and it is really loud.”

They would spend the next 14 nights in the basement. After two weeks of shelling, Polina and her mom made the decision to go to Poland. Her father, like other Ukrainian men, wasn’t allowed to leave.

With limited time to pack, she grabbed what she could: Some clothes, and her tennis racket.

After three months in Warsaw – isolated, lonely and with limited access to any tennis courts – Polina and her mom were connected with an American who was willing to sponsor them.

They were approved under a program known as humanitarian parole, essentially a two-year visa.

In Hampton Falls, a small team of families, mostly connected with a church in town, arranged for their housing, coordinated paperwork, and managed donations from the community.

But it was still a difficult transition for the family.

“When they got here, there were a lot of tears and a lot of emotional stuff to deal with,” said Catie McLaughlin, one of the volunteers helping to settle the family. “It was very hard.”

Polina enrolled in Winnacunnet High School, where she’s now in her junior year. Nina started taking English classes, and recently began working part-time at Home Depot. Unable to drive, they’ve been dependent on friends and volunteers.

Polina on the court
Todd Bookman/NHPR
Polina has been given free court time at facilities in the region, including Seacoast Tennis Club, where she is working with Coach Chum Steele.

Still, they’ve settled in on the Seacoast, which means that the thing that was motivating the whole family before the war – Polina’s tennis – is back front and center.

“I think the first few times I saw you play tennis, you had a smile on your face that I hadn't really seen before,” said Catie.

While Polina had a routine, a coach, and a regular court to practice on in Ukraine, she had to start from scratch in New Hampshire.

Catie reached out to everyone she could find in the local tennis community; coaches responded by offering free or discounted lessons, including the MAC Tennis Academy in Manchester, Mass., and Mark Moulton, former head coach for UNH’s tennis team.

The U.S.T.A awarded her a financial scholarship, and recently, she’s been working with Chauncey ‘Chum’ Steele, who played in the U.S. Open and Wimbledon, and now gives instruction at a club in North Hampton.

On a recent Wednesday night, Polina was hitting with Ron Oullette, a 79-year old member of the club, while Chum gave advice.

He thinks she’s good enough already, despite the upheaval of the past year, to play in college.

“Tremendous ground strokes. Tremendous power,” said Steele. “She needs lots of match play experience. That's the big thing that she’s lost in the last couple of years.”

To get that extra experience, she’s still deciding if she should skip the local high school team in favor of private instruction and more challenging elite regional tournaments.

But school is otherwise going well. Her English is rapidly improving, she’s made friends, and she plans on driver’s ed this fall.

“Here, right now, is good,” said Polina. “I’m happy.

“Very very very busy,” Nina interjects.

“Busy, that’s why I'm not cry. I’m so busy,” Polina agrees.

Busy, and soon, reunited with her father, Victor. He was recently granted permission to leave Ukraine. Once his paperwork is complete, he’s going to come join them in Hampton Falls.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University. He can be reached at tbookman@nhpr.org.

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