Morton Grove native Andrew Lyon, right, with his girlfriend, Oleksandra Yarova, and her son, Mikha, on Christmas in 2018. (Photo provided by Andrew Lyon)

Andrew Lyon grew up in Morton Grove, just west of Evanston and Skokie, and he attended Niles North High School in the mid-1990s. His cousin, Marianne Moberly, currently lives in Evanston and served for many years as the chief advancement officer for Youth and Opportunity United, the local youth outreach and advocacy organization on Church Street. 

Growing up, Lyon spent several summers playing saxophone at Northwestern University’s jazz band camps and enjoying sunny days at Evanston beaches. After high school, Lyon got his bachelor’s degree in music performance at Illinois State University and later his master’s degree in orchestral conducting at Butler University in Indiana.

Over the last 15 years, he has worked in composing, conducting and music consulting, traveling to conferences and classical music festivals in different parts of the world. He also honed his conducting skills in Evanston working with such renowned directors as Northwestern’s Mallory Thompson and Victor Yampolsky during summer workshops. The university’s current marching band director, Dan Farris, was Lyon’s marching band leader at Illinois State.

In 2007, he visited Kyiv for the first time to attend the International Conductors Festival. While there, one of the other American conductors wanted to help the group immerse themselves in Ukrainian culture, so he booked a stay with the highest-rated host in Kyiv according to couchsurfing.com, a global website that helps travelers find places to crash and people to meet. 

To welcome his guests, the host brought in a bunch of his local friends in Kyiv and threw a party for the American conductors. That host’s name is Zhenya, and he is Lyon’s best friend to this day. 

“Once [Ukrainians] know who you are, they will go to the ends of the earth for you,” Lyon said. “We saw that with the orchestra, working with individual musicians, getting to know the people that aren’t musicians. The people who were at Zhenya’s party ended up coming to the concert the next night, and they have been to almost every concert since, on and off for 15 years.”

Kyiv has hosted the International Conductors Festival almost every year since then, so Lyon returned to Ukraine for several weeks most summers for the next decade. In 2017, he met a Kyiv native, Oleksandra “Sasha” Yarova. 

Yarova and Lyon have been together ever since, although they have spent much of that time apart because of visa restrictions and job demands. Over the last several years, they have spent a couple of months at a time together, traveling to different places like Canada, Iceland and Germany. 

“It was pretty expensive dating,” Yarova said. “Well, it was worth it.” 

But a few months ago, in December 2021, Lyon was finally able to move to Kyiv full time, with the excitement of getting to live with Yarova, her eight-year-old son, Mikha, and rescue dog, Santa. At the time, rumors were circulating about a build-up of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine and a possible Russian invasion, but no one seemed too concerned, according to Lyon. The threat of a war with Russia has hung like a dark cloud over the heads of every Ukrainian since Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea in 2014 and sparked a separatist rebellion in parts of far eastern Ukraine. 

Lyon and Yarova in front of St. Andrew’s Church in Kyiv.

“This is really not new,” Lyon said. “This is the reality of everyday life in Ukraine. Everybody has a ‘go bag,’ and for me, I moved in, I got a new office chair, and I got a new go bag, and I packed my go bag, and I had it ready because that’s just what you do. And then you get the kids to school, you get your groceries and you enjoy the fact that you’re in a really incredible town in an incredible country.”

That constant threat of war became a reality on Thursday, Feb. 24, when Putin ordered Russian forces to cross the border into Ukraine as part of what he called a “special military operation,” a euphemism he has been using to describe a Russian invasion into Ukraine. Lyon, Yarova and Mikha were lucky enough to get a flight out of the country to Germany late on the night of Feb. 22, less than 24 hours before all commercial air travel in Ukraine ground to a halt. They had to leave behind their rescue dog Santa, who is now with one of their friends who stayed in Kyiv.

Since then, American intelligence estimates that thousands of Russian soldiers have died in the war in slightly more than three weeks, while Russian missile strikes and shelling have killed thousands of innocent Ukrainian civilians in cities across the country. Russia recently attacked a theater that was serving as an emergency shelter for hundreds of people in the southeastern city of Mariupol. Ukrainian officials do not yet know how many survived the theater strike. 

“We are nearly allergic right now to other people calling this a crisis in Ukraine, although it is a crisis, but it’s a war,” Yarova said. “The biggest thing right now, for so many of us, is to actually show the world that this is not some kind of local crisis that is just about Ukraine or that is some misunderstanding between politicians. It is so far beyond that.”

For now, they are staying in an Airbnb in Frankfurt, where Yarova’s mother also fled. They’re trying to focus on staying safe and healthy for the next month or so, and their current plan is to spend a few weeks with Yarova’s friend in the Netherlands, according to Lyon. His friend Zhenya is also in Germany with his wife and kids. Yarova has close friends and family who are either still in Ukraine or have sought refuge in countries across Europe.

Yarova is trying to do what she can to help from afar, and she has been able to set up a makeshift communications center for getting relatives and friends connected to others who can help them leave Ukraine or find food, water and shelter. 

Still, she said she just wishes she could be home. 

When reflecting on what Kyiv and Ukraine as a whole mean to them, both Yarova and Lyon talked about the natural beauty of the land and the importance of family, food and human connection. The blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag represent the sky over the land, Lyon said, and the people always stress the significance of staying in touch with nature and the land. 

“As far as values, family is definitely important,” Lyon said. “They take that very seriously in that when they know you, they welcome you. It’s like going back to your Jewish or Italian grandmother’s kitchen. You’re not going to leave until you’re overfed.” 

Yarova told the RoundTable that she hit a breaking point recently when she realized that this war could last months, even years. Even though she left the country before the missiles started hitting public squares and the air raid sirens blared around the clock, she is a refugee. 

But she also emphasized her pride in being Ukrainian and her love for all the people who are fighting in the war, staying behind or seeking asylum in another country. 

“For me, Ukraine is about people who are different, who accept different [people], who love freedom,” Yarova said. “That’s important. We love freedom and to be free in all possible ways. We really don’t like to be told what to do or what not to do or how to behave or what is good or what is wrong. We are fully capable of understanding and deciding without anybody’s help.”

Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

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