After weeks of a buildup of troops and military equipment massing at the Ukrainian border, rumours of a Russian invasion were rampant and Oleksii Miroshnyk refused to believe it was happening.
But early in the morning of Feb. 24th, he woke to the piercing sound of Russian fighter jets flying low past over their house in the suburbs of Kharkiv and he knew war had arrived in his country.
Miroshnyk and his wife and three daughters were soon to become refugees, forced to leave their country two days after the invasion began to get out of the line of fire, a journey that would eventually take them to Prince George.
They packed what they could into a car borrowed from a cousin and left their house in Merefa, 20 kilometres southwest of the Kharkiv city centre and about 70 kilometres from the Russian border. Kharkiv, with 2.5 million residents, was devastated by missiles and bombing attacks but fortunately their neighbourhood has been mostly spared.
“It’s not destroyed yet,” said Oleksii, “but uncertainty is everywhere.”
The Miroshnyks withdrew their life savings from the bank, packed up important documents, a few personal possessions and clothes and drove to a relative’s house in Lviv, in western Ukraine. During peaceful times it’s a 10-hour trip, but with long lineups at filling stations and congested roads clogged with panicked motorists fleeing the attacks it took them two days and two sleepless nights.
After a 31-hour wait they crossed the border into Romania on Feb. 26 and drove another 10 hours to get to Ruse, Bulgaria, where they took shelter in a small house owned by a Bulgarian family that offered to help. After weeks of ducking air raids in underground bunkers, Oleksii’s mother and father and sister and her two kids got to Poland and eventually joined them in their three-room dwelling and they lived there together for two months. The Miroshnyks have biometric passports with embedded chips that allow free entry to other countries but the other five family members in Bulgaria are still waiting for their upgraded documents and are stuck there.
Liliia’s mother and 86-year-old grandmother were unable to leave for safer parts of Ukraine due to their health conditions and they remain in hiding at their home in Merefa. They have power, heat and water, and access to food, but both are pensioners and food prices have spiked sharply, which limits what they can buy. They do receive some humanitarian food aid to keep from going hungry.
A school 500 metres from the apartment building where Liliia once lived with her parents was bombed and the windows of the apartment block were smashed. With cold weather certain to return by October the remaining residents have covered their windows with plywood or cardboard, reluctant to spend money on replacement windows which could be blown out again with a single bomb blast. Russian troops advanced on Kharkiv starting on Feb. 27, but the Ukrainian military successfully turned back the attacks and remains in their control, although some Russian units continue to shell parts of the city.
The Miroshnyks landed in Prince George on May 24 and moved into a furnished basement suite provided to them by Steve and Kate Lund in a house they now share with the Prince George couple and their nine-year-old son, Jack. The Lunds responded to a Facebook post from UNBC basketball player Vova Pluzhnikov, Oleksii’s second cousin, asking for anyone willing to provide accommodation until they get settled in their own living quarters. Pluzhnikov’s connections as a prominent and well-respected university athlete, whose Run For Ukraine in March raised nearly $77,000, helped attract an anonymous sponsor who paid for their flights from Hungary.
“It was the first flight for all of us,” said Oleksii.
The man also gave the Miroshnyks money for food and to help them get established in Prince George. They don’t have the money to buy a vehicle, with used car prices quite expensive, but they’ve had a few tours and are getting used to their new surroundings.
“There is a lot of nature here, a lot of lakes,” said Liliia, translated by Oleksii. “We’re not used to the lack of people in the streets. We guess people are hiding in cars, offices and houses. The city looks nice. I has quite good infrastructure, good roads, good parks. It’s very easy to notice everything has been taken care of.”
The family uses social media apps Telegram, Viber, Facebook and What’s App on their phones to keep in daily contact with friends and relatives, most of whom are based near Lviv, and they send unfiltered news about what’s really happening in their neighbourhoods. The Miroshnyks occasionally go on internet news sites to learn news about the rest of the country. They don’t own their own television but the Lund family makes theirs available if they want to watch anything.
“We don’t spend a lot of time in that because it makes us depressed,” said Oleksii. “When there’s no news, that’s good news.”
So far, their relatives have avoided injury in the conflict but the Miroshnyks know the husband of one of their daughter’s teachers was killed and the son of one of Liliia’s co-workers also died after he was conscripted into the army. They also have friends whose contact with them has been severed.
Oleksii has just one sister and Liliia has no siblings, but they have dozens of family members - cousins, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews – still in Ukraine and have close relationships with all of them.
“They have a life of total uncertainty because of the constant threat,” said Oleksii. “They don’t know which decisions to take for everyday things. For example, they could start a renovation in their room today and tomorrow a rocket or bomb could hit into their room. The market is bad they don’t know how to start their business or where to find investments and they don’t know what job to find because their was problems with payments and salaries.”
Some have jobs and also receive support from the government and European Union. A relative with a successful IT business is also providing funding to close relatives through online bank deposits, a system that continues to operate normally.
Oleksii, 39, was allowed to leave the country with his family because he has three or more children. While families continue to flee across borders to neighbouring countries, any adult male with less than three kids has no choice but to remain and join the Ukrainian military.
Oleksii and his 36-year-old wife have twin 13-year-old girls (Masha and Dasha) and a seven-year-old daughter (Ira). The twins were required to spend their first 14 days in Canada in quarantine because they are unvaccinated, as is Ira. Oleksii and Liliia have had their shots but Ukraine has yet to introduce COVID vaccines to kids aged 12-17 and younger children were also excluded from the government’s vaccination program. Having just finished their quarantine, the girls have yet to meet any Prince George kids around their own age, with the exception of their housemate Jack.
“He is their first friend in Canada,” said Oleksii.
Before the war, Oleksii was working as a digital marketer in Ukraine for a cardboard/wrapping paper warehouse/retail store owned by his cousin and was being groomed as sales manager in charge of expanding the company’s business to England and Poland. Ideally, he’d like a job that allows him to work remotely to utilize his skills in e-commerce/marketing or as a customer care specialist. He’d also be willing to work on a construction site. Liliia also was involved in the family business and she would like to put her administrative/secretarial skills to use in a full-time job. They have work permits, they just need an opportunity.
“I’ve learned a lot of e-commerce just from practice and I would like to lead creation of an online store, because I know how to do it from scratch,” said Oleksii. “We like to be busy, we like to be productive, we’re not used to not working.”
Oleksii studied history and languages at university in Kharkiv and is the only one in the family who speaks English. The language barrier is especially troubling for Liliia, who misses her office work, and the twins, who want to fit into Canadian society as soon as they can. There are free English courses available through the Immigrant and Multicultural Services Society and through St. George’s Ukrainian Catholic Church, but the lessons are only offered on weekday mornings when they are busy trying to find jobs. Online courses would work for them but there’s a cost involved and the family has just one laptop computer.
Starting their lives over again in a strange country with no possessions, limited job prospects and just one family member (Pluzhnikov) to lean upon is certainly not an ideal situation but they are grateful for the opportunity to build a new life for themselves in Canada. They have fears of the Canadian medical system and what it will cost them for dental/vision care if they need it, but they are trying not to worry about that. They don’t know how long they will remain in Canada or if their move to the country will be permanent, but that is a possibility. They remain hopeful they will eventually see their friends and family again.
“I wish we could take time back to the 22nd of February, and nothing happened,” Liliia said.
“Usually our family has never desired anything from the past, this is the only time in our lives, and I suppose the last time,” added Oleksii.
Between Jan. 1 – May 30, 32,144 Ukrainians came to Canada by air and 7,251 arrived in the country by land. Since the invasion, 11 families and about 40 individuals have come to Prince George from Ukraine and made contact with a volunteer group behind the website Prince George for Ukraine, which puts local residents in touch with the refugees.
Those interested in helping the Miroshnyks or other Ukrainian families in Prince George can go to the Prince George for Ukraine website.