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“We woke up and it was war” – Ukrainian refugee family attempts to start anew in Niagara


By Mike Williscraft


Ontario has a provincial election campaign underway and municipal elections pending this fall.

Anyone who has flipped through social media or pages of a newspaper will have come across a lot of complaining about a host of items which are either areas of concern or matters which raise residents’ ire.

For Serhiy Voloshyn and his wife, Anastasiia, Ontario is looking just fine to them.

The couple arrived in Canada about two weeks ago – leaving their home and all their possessions behind in now-war-torn Kharkiv, Ukraine.

“We didn’t see, we heard. The rockets were all around. It started at about 5 a.m. We opened our eyes and knew it was war,” recalled Serhiy, while seated in the serene backyard of Wayne and Jill Willis of Grimsby.

“Nobody thought the Russians would attack. Nobody in Kharkiv expected war like this. It was really quick, really strange.”

The couple’s immediate reaction was to get the kids in the basement of their apartment complex.

While they had a private room there it was anything but posh with no running water or washroom. There were several other families seeking safety there as well.

Hearing what was coming and believing they had little option, after two days of hiding out, the couple packed up their car – taking some clothes and basics – and crossed into Germany. There they stayed for a few days with the ex-wife of Serhiy’s brother before finding a spot in a shelter.

“We stayed in the basement all the time except when it was silent. We could get outside a little bit but, when the shooting started, we went back in the basement,” said Serhiy, a university graduate with a degree in electrical engineering.

“Where we were (at that time) was not what you see on TV now. We heard everything, it was all around us. We did see the border station as Kharkiv is on the Russian border. It was destroyed. My wife and children did not see any dead.”

“We left for Germany early in the morning on (February) 26th. The last part of that drive was at night and the kids were asleep. I saw a lot of blood in the streets that night.”

With getting shuffled from their home to the basement to a German apartment and then a shelter all within the span of a week, the Voloshyns had to explain to their children what was going on.

“They just wanted to know what they needed to do, where we were going,” said Serhiy.

“My daughter, Varvara, understands. She cried when I told her war had started and we had to hide and then I began crying. We didn’t want to leave the Ukraine. We hoped it would be finished in a day or two, but Serhiy said this was just the start,” added Anastasiia.

Sadly, Serhiy was correct and the fire he feels – even on this side of the ocean – is a good reason why.

“We see the news daily, The Ukraine army is doing well, but we have not seen all of (Vladimir) Putin’s army. Maybe we will still see more. I think it could be really bad,” said Serhiy, who was allowed to leave the country with his family because he has three children. All single men and men with two children or fewer must stay in the Ukraine to fight.

While Varvara understands what has been happening, middle child, Myron, has heard lots.

“War, war, tanks, tanks, Russian, Russian, Putin: Myron says things he hears, but he does not understand,” said Anastasiia.

“I don’t think they have any psychological damage,” noted Serhiy, “But I have a bad feeling about all the children in Ukraine. They see a lot of pain.”

It was that clear concern for their children which motivated Serhiy and Anastasiia to seek a safer home.

Like tens of thousands of others, the Voloshyns took to the internet in search of a haven.

They were very lucky connecting with Wayne and Jill via which allows people all around the world to register what their accommodations may be so those seeking a new home can connect.

“There was a lot there saying they can host but with three kids and five in total it’s a lot,” said Serhiy, who learned English during his university days working as a port in a hotel.

Wayne noted he had registered as a potential home for up to six, and he had just accepted two ladies who were currently in Estonia the day before.

“Once we connected we talked for about six weeks on WhatsApp. It took him a while to get this Visa. We helped with documentation and some airfare, too,” said Wayne, noting the refugee program comes with a three-year work Visa.

“Jill and I don’t have any kids and we have room so we thought we should do something.”

The Voloshyns are very happy they did.

“Canada is a good country with big possibilities for our kids. Even if we go back after three years it is a great chance for my kids to read and write English. I think we have chosen a great country,” said Serhiy.

“Now we have a place to do all of our things. I still need to find a job, maybe take some courses. We don’t want to disturb Wayne and Jill too much. My kids are busy kids. We need to be strong, We need to be good for them.”

And while they attempt to rebuild their lives from practically nothing in a foreign country, their hearts and minds are much in their homeland.

“Even if we went back tomorrow, we don’t know what is left. It was hard to leave the property. Kharkiv has a lot of damage,” said Serhiy.

“They will need to teach some construction and engineering so the country can rebuild.”

And what of their thoughts on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy?

“We supported Zelenskyy. He’s a nice person. I think he was doing many good things, but he still needs to change the system in the Ukraine. It is still very corrupt. He needs to change the system. It will be a nice place to be one day,” said Serhiy.

Now that they have been in  Canada a couple of weeks, their quarantine is over.

The kids have been registered with District School Board of Niagara and will begin classes, Serhiy has obtained a Social Insurance Number so he can begin work and he is starting to look for a job in earnest.

“It is very expensive for rent and life in Ontario. We want to live in good places, but I need a job, too. I may get a job in the north and they (his family) can live somewhere nice and warm. At home, you get more money if you work north where it’s cold,” said Serhiy.

As for the kids, daughter Varvara was active in dance in the Ukraine and  Myron is an award-winning gymnast having won competitions.

“Myron is good at gymnastics. He won a competition in our region right before we had to leave. We are hoping to find some activities for all of them,” said Anastasiia.

For things like that, the Voloshyns will need the goodwill of Niagara West residents to continue – as it always seems to do.

“The response has been great,” said Wayne.

“Just while we’ve been sitting here three more people have texted me they have clothes to drop off.”

Wayne also noted a GoFundMe page has been set up:

All proceeds will go to help the Voloshyns re-establish a home.

Still, with all the work and uncertainty, Serhiy has “one small wish”.

“My wish is to take military service in Canada so I could go back and defend my country. I know I am not a citizen, but I would like to do it. I have to check if it’s possible,” said Serhiy.

“Number one is to have safety for my wife and kids, but I think about this every day. It is only my wish.”

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