The Call Up

How ex-MLS midfielder Dema Kovalenko helped his family escape war-torn Ukraine

As he watched news footage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from his Chicago-area home, a heartbroken Dema Kovalenko knew it was imperative to get his family out of his native country. 

But how?

The former MLS midfielder shared his harrowing tale with Jillian Sakovits and Susannah Collins on the latest episode of The Call Up. Unable to go to Ukraine, Kovalenko instead flew to Poland and told his family to meet them there. That, of course, was easier said than done.

“I didn’t know what to do. It was a difficult situation,” said Kovalenko, who starred for Chicago Fire FC and D.C. United in an 11-year MLS career. “My family was in a bomb shelter for 10 days and I needed to get them out. It was difficult. This is the only way. I couldn’t travel home because of what’s going on so I called them and said let’s meet in Poland and that’s what happened.”

Kovalenko’s mother, sister and niece, with just backpacks on their shoulders, left for a Kyiv train station and were finally able, despite not having tickets, to board the fourth train that arrived bound for Western Ukraine.

They spent the next 18 hours on a train without lights, packed in a cabin for four with 16 others looking to flee. From there, they crossed the border to Hungary and then took a 12-1/2 hour ride to Poland.

Kovalenko came to the United States from Kviv alone at the age of 13 and lived with an American family in Rochester. He went on to play at Indiana University before beginning his MLS career with the Fire and winning an MLS Cup with D.C. United. Kovalenko retired in 2010 as a member of the LA Galaxy after also playing for the New York Red Bulls and Real Salt Lake, and he is currently a coach with Oak Brook SC in the Chicago area.

Be sure to check out the full episode of The Call Up with Dema Kovalenko HERE.