Pictured: Destroyed homes in the author’s Kharkiv neighbourhood.
I am the most unlikely, and perhaps also the happiest, refugee from Ukraine. I am 42 years old. I am a migration expert from the city of Kharkiv in the northeast of Ukraine. Until late February this city was known only by Ukranians. Everything changed at 5:07 a.m. on February 24, 2022.
I had been living a comfortable, healthy life. With my stable income as a civil servant, I was able to go to the gym twice a week, and swim in the pool. I lived happily in my freshly renovated apartment, with three closets full of beautiful clothes and luxury perfumes on my dressing table. I spent weekends with my friends, as well as my mother and other relatives. My life was well under control. War was far away.
On the evening of February 23, 2022, I came home happy and relaxed after a productive day at the office and a pleasant time in the gym and pool. I was reminded of my childhood in the USSR, when February 23 was a holiday to honour the Soviet army and air force. We children would applaud our grandfathers who had served in World War II, and also friends and neighbours who were in the military at that time.
I woke up at five o’clock on February 24 to the sound of explosions. At first I didn’t think it was real. After 10 seconds – no, it is. It was so loud. I got scared. My arms trembled, and then my whole body. I called my boss who told me I should be in the office, so I went after leaving food and water for Amani, my Maltese dog. I put an anti-barking collar on him, as I always did, expecting that in the evening I would return home and take off his collar, and we would go for a walk.
My intuition told me that from that day everything would be different. I should have listened to my premonitions. At 2 p.m. the office was closed, and I took my personal things from there to my aunt’s house which was closer to the office, but it was on the opposite side of town from my flat. When I tried to go home to get my dog, I found the subway already closed, the stations converted into bomb shelters. I tried to take a taxi, but the price had increased from 200 hryvnia to 1,500 hryvnia (around $8.50 to around $65 CAD) because of the shortage of gasoline. It took two days to find transport to return to my apartment and my dog.
The bombing kept us locked in the apartment, under curfew from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. The next day we went to the bomb shelter. Ours was the basement of a nearby residential building.
On my fourth day in the shelter underground, the house above us was damaged by a shell. Glass fell to the ground, sharp edges sticking out from the early March snow. The glass shards were dangerous underfoot, but the real danger was to be in the house when the shell hit, throwing up glass fragments.
After the shell hit, we had no electricity for three days; no internet or telephone connection. We sat in the dark for three days, afraid to go outside. The electricity returned but the bombardment continued, day and night. What if the railway station were to be destroyed? I increasingly felt that I could no longer live with this constant expectation of an attack. I decided to leave. I took Amani to my aunt, who promised to take good care of him.
I went to the railway station, with only my laptop and a bag filled with documents, wearing appropriate clothes for the season. There was no room for suitcases in the overcrowded evacuation trains. We rode 12 or 13 people in a compartment designed for four. I had no plan except to go in the opposite direction from the Russian border, just 40 kilometres to the northeast. I made my way to Lviv, close to the Polish border, where there were evacuation buses organized by the Polish consulate. Luckily for me, there was a free seat and I was allowed to join the group.
On March 8, I crossed the Polish border and went by bus to Yaroslav, and then by train to Warsaw. I had no friends in Poland. I did not know where to go. Nobody was waiting for me. I didn’t know how to continue to live and, even more important, where to live. My comfortable life had been turned upside down.
Warsaw was overflowing with Ukrainian refugees. There were so many people at the train station that there was nowhere to sit, even on the floor. Every hotel was full and volunteers were transporting people away from Warsaw, to villages and neighbouring regions. I spent the night on the floor at the Warsaw train station.
Warsaw is a big city – I can find a job there and a place to sleep, I thought. A friend from home put me into contact with a professional colleague from Warsaw whom I had never met before, named Malgorzata Kaminska. The next day Malgorzata took me to her house. I lived in her house for one month. I can never thank her enough.
Poland has accepted more than 3,600,000 Ukrainians fleeing the war. But the Poles themselves were scared, too. The talk was that Putin would next attack Poland. Fear hung in the air. I couldn’t help thinking that Russia was just across the border to the north, especially when Putin talked about readying “special weapons.”
I needed to get as far away from Russia as possible. But where? Most European states said they would accept Ukrainians for a year or 18 months. From the news, I learned that the Canadian government had announced a simplified entry program for Ukrainians fleeing the war, offering a three-year work visa. In addition, I knew there was a large Ukrainian diaspora in Canada. I made the decision to go to Canada. I filled out the questionnaire on the first day the program opened.
Now I was at a loss as to where exactly in Canada I should go. After all, it is a very big country. I posted on Facebook asking for advice on which province or city I should go to, where my skills would be in demand, and where I could be most useful to the community.
Julia Smith answered me. She told me about the province of New Brunswick and the city of Fredericton, adding that this region needs people with my qualifications and experience.
So I made my choice: Fredericton.
Julia was flying to Warsaw in a few days, to help another Ukrainian family. We agreed to meet in Warsaw. I confirmed my decision to go to Canada and Julia agreed to help. She organized people to raise money for my ticket, and – another miracle – she collected the money in one day. So, on April 22, I flew to Toronto, and then to Fredericton.
And today, I can say confidently how happy I am that I chose Canada and New Brunswick. Despite all my losses, my war stress and the fear for my life, I am happy again. Thanks to the people who surround me, whom I have found and who chose me.
I am very grateful to Julia Smith and her partner for finding me a comfortable place to live, and the needed financial support. I am also heartily grateful to those Canadians who bought me a ticket to Canada, and also for all the kind words of welcome and emotional and financial help.
War and loss change everyone. I changed. I reevaluated my whole life. Ukraine has changed and with this war the world has changed. This war has shown how kind people are, not just how cruel they can be. And it does not depend on religion, or citizenship, or race or nationality. We are all vulnerable. Our planet has changed; let us make it for the better. With the shock of war can come awareness and unity.
I am writing this by the Bay of Fundy, far from Russia. My new life has begun.