When 13-year-old Ukrainian refugee Tymofii Salomatin started at Tennyson Knolls Preparatory School in Arvada, he didn’t speak any English and his classmates didn’t speak Russian, so the kids used Google Translate to communicate. When the other students asked Tymofii what he liked to do, he mentioned that he played piano, which lead the curious students to beg their teacher to allow him to play.
Tricia Corneau is a culturally and linguistically diverse education specialist at Tennyson Knolls. She didn’t know what to expect when Tymofii sat down to play at the old piano in the Colorado school’s music room.
“Tymofii starts playing and it was as though it’s an American Idol audition,” Corneau said. “All of the students’ jaws just hit the floor, and everybody all at once just let out applause, and everybody’s clapping and cheering. Some kids were crying.”
Since that day, Tymofii’s skill has become legend. He even played at a recent high school event for Westminster Schools called “Celebrating Excellence.”
“They had never heard anything so beautiful, nor had I,” Corneau said.
His mother Ella Salomatina would agree.
“There is a saying in Russian; ‘Genius is 99% work and 1% talent.’ I think Tymofii has talent from God. God gave him this gift,” Salomatina said in Russian.
Tymofii has studied piano for seven years, attending music school in Ukraine. All of his siblings also play instruments, but his mother says he is the most gifted.
“It’s my dream,” Tymofii said in Russian. “I want a career in this as a pianist.”
It’s a gift that he’s cultivated despite enormous adversity.
“This war left an imprint on all of us, we saw it with our own eyes, we heard how shells explode, we all survived it, the children survived it,” Salomatina said.
In 2014, Tymofii, his parents and his four siblings fled from their home in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, to elsewhere in the country. But in 2020, the war followed them.
“The place where we lived there, it was shelled, it was very scary, the children were very scared,” Salomatina said. “We ran from one house to the basement to hide from the shells and God put a wall over us, that is, we were all intact, nothing happened to us, although there were explosions flying around.”
They moved again to western Ukraine and lived there for the last year, but danger persisted.
Finally, in late March, they immigrated to Colorado to live with relatives, but one member of the family was left behind.
“My eldest son Andrey, he’s still in Ukraine. He can’t leave because we have a war there and men from 18 to 60 years old can’t leave the country,” Salomatina said.
As the war rages on, the chances of the family ever returning dwindle.
“Not too long ago, in the village where we lived, there was an explosion and our house was very damaged. At the moment, we see no way to go back. It’s dangerous for the kids to be there,” Salomatina said.
Now, they’re adjusting to life in Colorado. Salomatina says the community has been welcoming, and her children like the school. They also have made friends with other Ukrainian refugees in the area.
“We are grateful to America as a country. It helps Ukraine in this war a lot. We are grateful to the school and our favorite teacher. She has devoted a lot of time to us. Thank you!” Salomatina said, gesturing with gratitude to Corneau.
“He’s just such a motivated student. He’s passionate about his learning, he’s passionate about his music and he’s such an inspiration for our students and our staff,” Corneau said.
Tymifii is making friends, and learning English, but in the meantime, he tells his story through music.
“Music is the universal language and he proved that,” Corneau said.
The school doesn’t have a music program and Tymofii doesn’t have a piano at his relative’s home. Instead, he practices on an electric keyboard his family borrowed from a church and takes lessons remotely with his music teacher in Ukraine.