They haven’t forgotten their homeland, but fear it will be some time before they can even go home to visit
Since Russia launched its most recent war against Ukraine early in 2022, about 200,000 Ukrainians have made their way to safety in Canada. By early 2023 there were several families putting down roots in Niagara-on-the-Lake, with Shirley Madsen, a local woman of Ukrainian heritage, doing all she could to help them.
Madsen has been referred to as an angel by some of them, a miracle by others, and has continued to help out when called upon, although not to the extent she was — families who have settled are making their way and creating new lives in their new homes.
“It’s been overwhelming,” she says of the past year. Some of those she met “have almost become part of my own family. They are always positive, no matter the hardships they’ve gone through, and continue to, with jobs or housing or cars, no matter the challenges they face. They are always joyful, and thankful for all the help they receive from others, not just me.”
Last year, The Local spoke to some of those families about their experiences once the bombing started in Ukraine, how they left the homes they loved, their jobs and other family members and made their way to Canada and to NOTL, and about their lives once they found homes and jobs.
The Local recently met with three families to find out how they are managing a year later, and it was a heartwarming experience to hear how well they have done carving out their new life despite the uncertainty and challenges they have faced.
Liudmyla (Luda) Babina and her husband Vasyl Babin arrived in St. Davids about a year and a half ago, with their two youngsters, Daniel and Valeria.
Luda told The Local recently that when they left home with just four small suitcases, they had no idea where they were going, and could never have imagined where they have ended up. Vasyl explains it wasn’t about making one decision — there were many decisions and many small steps along their journey, the last one in response to a phone call from his brother in Ukraine, who knew of someone in this place called St. Davids who would give him a job.
Luda says when they left Ukraine and arrived in Romania they thought they would be there for a month or two before they could go home. Now, she can’t imagine it being safe to return to visit — that seems years in the future, and they have settled into making a safe life for their children here in Niagara.
They recently had to find a new home to rent — the house they lived in when they first arrived was only intended to be temporary. It was on a large property slated for development and they knew the owner had plans to tear it down eventually. Despite fearing they would never anything else affordable in the area, where they hoped to stay, they were fortunate to find a lovely home on York Road, nearer to Queenston, that they are now renting.
“This is a miracle,” says Vasyl, gesturing around the warm, welcoming kitchen of their new home. “We feel like we have so much here. God has helped us with everything.”
From the time they left Ukraine, he says, with his new-found English skills, “there has been so much prayer,” each step “another blessing.”
He first worked in construction, but was a certified mechanic in Ukraine, and now works at Covelli’s on Four Mile Creek Road. “My job is perfect,” he says. It is regular hours and allows him to be home in the evenings with their children when Luda is working.
She has a full-time day job with the Welland Heritage Council and Multicultural Centre, where she helps refugees who arrive in Niagara Falls. She also works part-time for Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery evenings and weekends as a server in the event centre, but that is on hold until April.
She explains that when Ukrainians came to Canada through a recent immigration program to help those fleeing the war, they were not considered refugees. They were given $3,000 each, health insurance and work permits. They, like other recent arrivals, have applied for permanent resident status, but it takes time, she says. Refugees are eligible for social assistance, but those who arrived under that immigration program are not. “We came, and we worked hard. We didn’t have any choice. From the beginning, we have supported ourselves.”
We came, and we worked hard. We didn’t have any choice. From the beginning, we have supported ourselves.
Vasyl adds church is very important to them — there is a multicultural church in Niagara Falls where they have met other Ukrainians in similar situations, and their children go to “Sunday School” together, says Luda, although she laughs when she explains it’s actually held on Friday evenings.
The kids love to go to church to be with friends, and also to school — they both happily get on the bus to St. Michael Catholic Elementary School. Their English is perfect — they have lost their accents, Luda says proudly, and now speak to each other in English. They went to summer camp at the Community Church on York Road, and they are taking piano lessons. They have found a community.
The Babins are fearful for family at home, but Luda says her parents encouraged them to come to Canada, and when they talk, her mother says “‘I’m so happy I don’t have to call you to see if you are still alive.’”
Vasyl speaks of the continuing attacks on Ukraine, and says “Russians don’t have short wars. Their wars are never over.”
“We pray for it to be over,” adds Luda, “but it could be 10 years or more. Nobody knows.”
And they are happy to be where they are, “sleeping peacefully,” she says. “At night we hear coyotes, not rockets.”
At home “we would have no work to go to, no education for our children because schools are closed, and no life. Here we’re making connections, getting involved in the community. We hope to one day be able to sell our home in Ukraine,” Luda continues, explaining the money they would make would be a down payment on a house in Canada.
“We have a future here,” adds Vasyl. “It’s our home, and we want to be great Canadians.”
Another Ukrainian family Madsen has helped from their arrival in Niagara, Maryna Yermeni and her two daughters, Myra Yermeni, 10, and Iryna Izovita, 21, have found a home to rent in a nice neighbourhood in the Port Weller area. Both women work in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Maryna and Iryna initially found work in the housekeeping department of a local hotel, just four days after they arrived in Niagara, but Madsen has since helped Maryna set up her own cleaning business, with most of her clients in NOTL. Her mother Tetiana Kulchystska has since come from Ukraine to live with them, and helps out with the cleaning business. Iryna has now found a job as a server with 124 on Queen.
“Shirley (Madsen) helped us to find very good people,” Iryna says of her mother’s clients and the people she works for at the boutique Queen Street hotel.
“We came here to feel safe,” she translates for her mother, saying her main purpose in leaving Ukraine was for her children to be safe. “She wanted to live in a country where there was no war, and where there was a good future for her kids.”
They too are waiting for permanent resident status.
She explains that when they left Odessa, they were living on the 14th floor of an apartment building, “and when the bombing started, it would shake,” she says.
Maryna is an accountant by profession, and worked in management for an energy company where electricity was produced, which was a target for bombing. For a time Maryna was working in the basement of the building, but she feared more attacks.
For her daughters, there was no school, and no university — Iryna studied for her bachelor’s degree in international relations, and when they left, she was continuing at university, learning English and Chinese, as well as working in a kindergarten. She had hoped for an international job as a translator.
Myra is the only one of the family who admits to wishing she could go home — she left her best friend when they came to Canada, and she still misses her.
“Before the war, I never thought about moving abroad,” says Maryna. But once she realized they had to leave, Iryna talked her into coming to Canada, where her English would be helpful.
Maryna laughs and says “I knew no English. Zero.” Although she is picking up some English from her clients, she is too exhausted at the end of the day to go to classes.
And Tetiana, also laughing, repeats the words she knows: “Hello. Excuse me. Sorry.” But the two sisters speak perfect English, helping out when needed.
Maryna says she loves her work, her clients and even their pets — she knows all their names, feeds them and loves that they are there when she cleans.
She misses her sister, who lives far from the bombing in Ukraine and feels safe there, “but I talk to her every day.”
She tells The Local she has three dreams: “One is no war in Ukraine. Two, I want to buy a house, and have a garden and a dog. And three, I want a husband.”
Iryna laughs at her and tells her to hush, but Maryna is honest — she hopes for a husband to share her future.
We are grateful to be here. The most important thing is we are all alive
She loves her job, and “I put my soul into it. I work hard and I want to be the best I can be.” She could use more clients, both homes and businesses, she says, and would like to be able to provide work for others who are recent arrivals in Canada.
Iryna explains when she went to university “my mother told me work with your brains, not your hands. But when we came to Canada she understood she would have to start from the beginning and work hard and that’s what she has done. We are grateful to be here. The most important thing is we are all alive.”
Living on Four Mile Creek are Valeriia and Vitaly Saksina, and their daughters Vitalina, 12, who goes to St. Michael, and Viktoriia, 15, a student at Laura Secord.
In a recent meeting with The Local, Viktoriia does most of the translating for her parents. Their English has improved — they both go to classes in the evening — but they are happy to have Viktoriia, whose English is perfect, speak for them.
Vitaly works at Oliv, doing whatever needs to be done, from production to deliveries, and Valeriia has been baking at Bubble Tea on Queen Street. They both speak very highly of their employers, and feel fortunate to work for “really good people, lovely people,” says Valeriia, but her hours have been cut back for the season, and she stresses she really needs to find more work, which is a struggle.
Vitalina is happy at school, has made friends, and loves “recess and gym,” she says. Viktoriia is part of the concert choir and jazz choir at Laura Secord — she has performed in three concerts at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, and that has meant a lot to her.
They left a good life behind in Ukraine, she says. At home, Vitaly was an able seaman, often away, and Valeriia had a small retail stationary business. They lived in an apartment September to May, and had a seven-bedroom home on the sea where they lived from May to September, her mother looking after guests, running what is similar to the bed and breakfasts in NOTL.
As much as they miss that life, “ we love Canada,” she says. When the bombing started very suddenly, her dad was far away, and nobody knew what was happening or what to do. Valeriia was on her own trying to keep her family safe. Coming to Canada was the right move. “It’s a nice place to live. The people here are very welcoming and make us feel at home. My parents understand there are opportunities here, and they are grateful.”
Her father still feels “a pull to go home,” she translates for him, “but my parents are definitely here to give their children a safe place to live. Living with the alarms and sirens was emotionally difficult. Our schools are still open but if there is a siren we would have to go to the basement. It’s stressful for teachers because they have to protect their kids’ lives. And it’s stressful for parents because they don’t know what’s happening, if their kids are alive. Our school was close to a military station, not the safest place to be.”
Their home was a small town called Bilhorod-Dnistrovshki, a port just south of Odessa on the Black Sea, with a lot of history. Viktoriia proudly shows photos of the tourist town, with visitors coming to see the vineyards, where many residents make their own wine, the museum and a fort that has activities she describes as very much like the re-enactments at Fort George. The difference, she says, is that their town’s history goes back many more years — the fort was built in the 13th century.
Talk of their homeland and showing photos of it is nostalgic for them, but Valeriia brings the discussion back to the present, asking her daughter to pass on her message that “Canadian people have been so welcoming. Shirley (Madsen) has been helping us since we first got here. It was good to have someone to explain how things work here, someone who speaks Ukrainian and can help us understand. She helps us anytime we had a problem.”
Valeriia adds “a huge thank you to Canada, to its government for providing the opportunity to come here, to live in a safe place, and to have a fresh start in life.”