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Urged by her parents to escape war, Aleksandra Kuchukova brought just her saxophone, camera, and a fierce determination to bring her brother, George, to Poland as well

Aleksandra Kuchukova, 22, has been reunited with her brother George, 10, in Warsaw.Photography by Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

She’s become something of a fixture in Warsaw’s touristic Old Town, a tiny figure wrapped in a Ukrainian flag blowing tunes on her saxophone. But for 22-year-old Aleksandra Kuchukova, these regular performances haven’t been for show.

She arrived in Warsaw on March 17 from Lutsk, Ukraine, urged on by her parents who were desperate for at least one family member to escape the war. She’d brought next to nothing with her – just her sax, her camera and a fierce determination to find some way of bringing her 10-year-old brother, George, to Poland.

A friend offered her a place to stay for a few days and then she hit the streets, carrying her horn over her shoulder and packing a Ukrainian flag and a small music stand in a backpack. She played for hours outside a busy subway station and in the city’s famous Castle Square, sometimes pulling in close to 100 Polish zlotych (about $30) a day.

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None of this was planned. She only brought her saxophone because it’s her favourite instrument and she thought it would give her something to do. “I just was thinking I wouldn’t have work, I had to bring something. I have to do something,” she explained when she was first spotted by The Globe and Mail on her second day in town.

Back then, her repertoire included the Beatles’ Yesterday, Singin’ in the Rain and some popular Ukrainian folk tunes. “My parents wanted that I will come here to be safe,” she added. “But now I want to bring my brother.”

Ms. Kuchukova plays the saxophone in downtown Warsaw on March 18.

A couple of weeks later she texted with good news. She’d earned enough money to rent a room in a flat for two months. She’d also started looking for work, hoping to put her university degrees in dance and music to use as a teacher. But she didn’t speak Polish and she couldn’t afford to rent a room to offer her own music lessons. So she planned to keep playing her sax on the streets.

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Then, earlier this month, another text came. She finally felt settled enough to make the journey to Lutsk to get George.

They arrived back in Warsaw just before Orthodox Easter on Sunday. And they were accompanied by their mother, Olesia, an actor who also trained as a massage therapist.

Their father, Maksim, had to stay behind because of a Ukrainian law that bans adult men from leaving the country.

While the trio were thrilled to be reunited, the reality of family life as refugees had also hit home.

Ms. Kuchukova explained that the three of them were sharing the single room and one bed, which usually meant she ended up on the floor.

Olesia hasn’t been able to find work as a therapist and she’s planning to return to Lutsk to be with her husband, who worked as a carpenter before the war. She’s promised to send the children whatever money she can, but Ms. Kuchukova knows there’s little work and no money back home. She understands her mother’s decision – “Mom loves Dad and wants to go home,” she said – but now she has to worry about how to cover the rent.

The landlord is raising the rent to 800 zlotych a month from 600 in May and she’ll have to come up with money for utilities as well. Then there’s George’s braces, which she’s been told require 2,000 zlotych worth of work. He’d also love to take up karate again, but lessons cost money. And none of the five public schools in the area will take him because he doesn’t speak Polish.

The Polish government has offered some help. Ukrainian refugees can ride free on public transit, and they are eligible for free health care for the next 18 months. Ms. Kuchukova also said she has applied to receive 500 zlotych a month under a government assistance program.

Ms. Kuchukova says she's grateful she and George are together again.

Despite the hardships and uncertainties, Ms. Kuchukova said she couldn’t be happier. Her brother is here, her parents are safe, and she still has her music. “I’m so glad he’s with me,” she said as she walked down the street with George, holding his hand and stopping briefly to play fight.

George, too, couldn’t stop smiling or hugging his sister. He’s made some friends in the neighbourhood and Ms. Kuchukova said playing soccer with local children has helped him break down some of the language barrier. “They use a lot of hand signals to communicate,” she said.

She’s still searching for a job and she’s started teaching piano to a Ukrainian child, whose mother pays 50 zlotych a lesson. “It’s little bit, but it’s something,” she said with a shrug. She’s also joined a free dance class at a local ballet school.

She’s been mastering some new songs by Kenny G and Louis Armstrong. And now George comes along whenever she plays in the Old Town.

“He waves the flag and dances,” she said with a laugh.

She’d love to return to Ukraine one day. But for now, Warsaw is home, the streets are her stage and her beloved saxophone has saved her and her brother.

“This is the only way I can feed my brother,” she said. “I have no choice.”

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