Looking out the window of his family’s apartment on the outskirts of Kyiv on Feb. 23, Serhii was stunned by what he saw.
He called out to his wife Oleksandra, who was asleep.
“My husband came and he said, ‘Wake up, wake up, wake up, the war has started,’” said Oleksandra. “And I said, ‘Oh, leave me alone, it can’t be.’”
But she quickly awoke when she heard nearby explosions. Looking out the window, the couple counted 30 Ukrainian army tanks passing on their street.
They had been warned about a possible Russian invasion, but didn’t believe it would actually happen, and they certainly did not expect to see tanks in their peaceful neighbourhood.
”We were so scared,” Oleksandra said in an interview in Nelson on May 26. “We could not believe it.”
Oleksandra, 34, and Serhii, 35, along with their twin seven-year-olds Oleksandr (Sasha) and Oleksii (Lesha), have been living in Nelson with Tanya Finley and her husband Brent Holowaychuk since May 19.
The Nelson Star has not included the family’s last name at their request due to concerns for the safety of relatives in Ukraine.
The family is in Canada under the Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel (CUAET) program, which offers Ukrainian refugees a free visitor visa and open work permits for three years. Their arrival in Nelson was arranged by Finley and Tina Coletti of Nelson.
Because Serhii speaks very little English, Oleksandra answered the Nelson Star’s interview questions. Her description of their experience was forthright and unhesitating, but she looked and sounded exhausted. They have trouble sleeping, she said, due to jet lag and the after effects of weeks of intense danger.
But even though they are now half a world away from the war, the fear for their relatives and friends in Ukraine remains.
In Kyiv, the family had founded a music school where Serhii taught guitar and Oleksandra looked after customer service. The school, which employed several guitar teachers, was popular and growing, Oleksandra said.
She described Kyiv as a green city, with many parks and trees, historical sites, beautiful churches, old buildings in the main street and the Dnipro River.
“We adored going for walks in the city. It’s timeless, very beautiful.”
In the weeks after the tanks rolled down the family’s street, millions of people left Kyiv because of Russian attacks. But the family was ill with COVID-19, and they waited until they were healthy before deciding what to do.
The next day, when explosions seemed dangerously closer and more frequent, they left their apartment in a panic, with only a few clothes, and drove westward, along with thousands of other cars, trailed by the howling of air raid sirens.
“There were many traffic jams. We drove 20 hours,” Oleksandra said. “We couldn’t eat because we were stressed so much that we even couldn’t swallow.”
They explained to their children that they had to go to western Ukraine because Kyiv is not safe.
“But how can we explain that they shouldn’t be worried, if we are worried? We tried the best we could.”
Having decided to go to Lviv, a large city in western Ukraine, they tried an alternate route to avoid traffic jams but got stuck in the mud in the middle of the night.
Exhausted and terrified, they tried for hours to dislodge the car while calling for help, hearing explosions in the near distance. Eventually a man with a truck and a rope pulled them out.
With no energy to go further, they stopped in the town of Khmelnytskyi where a volunteer service gave them a free apartment. They stayed there for a stressful and exhausting month and a half, on the 10th floor of a high rise.
Every time they heard air-raid sirens they grabbed the kids and ran down the stairs to the basement. This happened about five times every day and three times in the night. They slept in their clothes.
The Russians bombed the town once, and many times around the outskirts, but their building was not hit.
Oleksandra said that living in a war, she lost a feeling that she used to take for granted: that she has a future.
“You have only now. Everything that you had in the past just disappeared. Our small business that was very successful and popular, it was our work, and now we are with nothing. You don’t have a past and you don’t have a future. All we had was our children.”
At first Oleksandra and Serhii thought they could wait out the war. Their government said it would last a week, but the same message would be repeated the next week. Eventually the couple realized the fighting would not be over soon, and since no city in Ukraine was safe, they decided to leave the country, and headed for the Romanian border.
Romanian volunteers met them and gave them food and accommodation in a church. The generosity of strangers relieved some of the desperate tension.
“We just went to nowhere and we didn’t know anyone. But those people helped us.”
They were there for a month, supported by the church. They spent much of their time reading about the war and worrying about their relatives.
Oleksandra’s mother will not leave her home in Kyiv because her husband is in the military, as is Oleksandra’s brother. Serhii’s father is very elderly and does not feel able to leave. The family members all touch base every day.
In Romania they got healthier, gaining back the weight they had lost, and learned about Russian attacks on the city of Bucha. Oleksandra said they know people from Bucha, some of whom have contacted them to say they are OK but are “stressed and traumatized.”
“It was just awful. Russians behave as wild animals. They killed innocent people. They raped the women and children even.”
Accounts from victims and witnesses of rape by Russian soldiers have been reported widely by international media.
Because of the reputation of Russian soldiers, Oleksandra is worried about the safety of the many nuclear power plants in the country.
“In my view, Russian soldiers act crazy. They are brainwashed to believe Ukrainians are bad. They will do anything.”
Before the Russian attacks, there had been a smaller war in Ukraine since 2014, in the eastern Donbas region. Their concern about that war had made Oleksandra and Serhii think about immigrating to Canada, but they had not followed through. Now, with an urgent incentive, they went to the Canadian Embassy in the Romanian capital, applied for the CUAET program, and were approved in two days.
Canada has promised to resettle an unlimited number of refugees from Ukraine. Between Jan. 1 and May 22, according to Canadian Border Services, 35,455 Ukrainian citizens and returning Canadian permanent residents of Ukrainian origin arrived in Canada under the program. Finley says there will be more Ukrainian families coming to Nelson as guests of other residents.
What the family needs
While the family rests at her home, Finley is busy helping them with details such as health cards, social insurance numbers, driving lessons (Ukrainian licenses are not valid here), and getting the boys enrolled in school. Sasha and Lesha, who speak no English, are attending half days at St. Joseph School in Nelson.
Meanwhile, Oleksandra says they are eager to go to work, because they are not used to being unemployed.
But she admits they are still jet lagged and very stressed, and they need to rest and re-orient themselves. She says she trusts Finley and Holowaychuk to look after them in the meantime.
“Tanya is my sun, my sun in the sky,” said Oleksandra. “Tanya and Brent all the time taking care of us. Tanya decided so fast, OK, take my house. Can you imagine this?”
Finley says she is often asked what people can donate to the family. Don’t donate random clothing or other items, she said. What they need is grocery gift cards or cards for clothing stores, especially men’s clothing, or for services such as haircuts.
In the family’s temporary home in Finley’s house, there is no room for large donated items.
Over the longer term, the family will need employment or funding so they can afford to rent their own place.
Donations can be dropped off at Finley’s Bar and Grill, 705 Vernon St.
When the family stepped off the plane in Cranbrook on May 19 they were each greeted with a hug from Tina Colletti, who had driven from Nelson to pick them up.
“Tina hugged me, my children, and my husband, and I felt safe,” Oleksandra said. “Your neighbour country would like to kill you, and here on the other side of the planet, I met a person who wants to help me. It’s like a miracle.”