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Refugees fleeing Ukraine war find safe haven on North Shore

Former residents of Odesa woke to shelling by Russian forces Feb. 24.

Olga Krupnyk woke early on her birthday in her mother’s apartment, to the sound of Russian shells hitting targets near the city of Odesa.

Her nine-month-old baby was still sleep, her husband Andrii out of the country with work for his theatre production company.

She found her mother sitting on the sofa in the living room, already up.

“Is it war?” her mother asked.

Russian forces had started bombardment of Ukraine’s cities, prompting an unprecedented flood of refugees.

In days that followed, there were frantic phone calls as Krupnyk and her family watched some of their neighbours fleeing the city, while others panic-bought supplies at the grocery store.

For the Krupnyks and other Ukrainian families who have arrived on the North Shore in the past two months, the Russian invasion that began Feb. 24 completely upended their lives.

For the Krupnyks, it meant a leap into the unknown, to a city in a country where they knew no one, buoyed by the kindness of strangers.

“We don’t understand what the situation in Ukraine will be next week, next month, next year,” said Andrii Krupnyk, reflecting on their decision from their new home in a West Vancouver cottage.

Life in Odesa, before war

Before the war, the couple lived in an apartment in the port city of Odesa on the Black Sea, a resort town known for its architecture and lively nightlife. Andrii worked with a theatre production company on projects, which took him from Moscow to Turkey. Olga was an obstetrics doctor, who also taught at university.

In January, the couple still thought war in Ukraine was unlikely, despite growing international concerns.

When the war became real, the couple decided that Olga and their baby, Simon, would leave and join Andrii in Turkey. Olga was able to take only a few possessions – including a favourite toy of Simon’s and essential travel documents. Her brother drove them close to the border with Moldova. From there, they walked across.

With the help of friends, Olga made her way to Turkey with her son, where the couple waited to see if the war would end in a week or two. When it didn’t, they began applying for visas, choosing Canada over Germany.

Neither of the couple speaks German, they said, and Germany’s compromised political stance on Russia made them uneasy.

'I'm not sure he'll stop in Ukraine.'

“We don’t understand what is in Putin’s head,” said Andrii. “I’m not sure he’ll stop in Ukraine.”

Even if the war was to halt, “You have a mad neighbour where you live who takes a hammer and destroys the wall between your apartments,” said Andrii. “Even if he stops, are you sure he will not come back?”

On the advice of Andrii’s father, a former diplomat, the couple chose to come to Vancouver, where West Vancouver residents Laura and Danny Sitnam had connected with the Ukrainian community through the Maple Hope Foundation to offer accommodation on their property. "We have so much," said Laura Sitnam, about the decision to offer the cottage ot a refugee family. "We thought we would share. Because we can."

'We made our choice.'

Olga remembers the enormity of their choice hitting her in an airport stopover in Frankfurt – that they were leaving all of their former lives behind. “We only have one opportunity,” she said. “When we arrived in Canada, we decided. We made our choice.”

Not far away, in another West Vancouver home, two other families from Odesa are making similar adjustments to life in Canada.

“We had a very beautiful and happy life in Ukraine,” said Tetyana Maydan, where she and her husband Sergiy both worked managing local businesses and their children played competitive basketball.

Former lives ended with sound of rocket strikes

That life ended with the sound of rocket strikes Feb. 24. At first, “We didn’t believe it was real,” said Maydan. The family hoped a negotiated end of the war would come. When it didn’t, and their children grew more frightened of the rocket fire, they also decided it was time to leave.

Once the decision was made, Maydan said she had less than two hours to put belongings in backpacks for herself and her three children, ­ 13-year-old twins Mariia and Illia and nine-year old Petro.

“We were advised not to leave,” she said. “It was dangerous to drive to the border.” They thought it was more dangerous to stay.

Sergiy drove the family as close to Moldova as possible, where they joined a line of other Ukrainians crossing the border. They walked the final seven kilometres on foot. A week later, Tetyana convinced Sergiy – exempt from military service as a man with three children – to join them.

Their ultimate destination was the Canadian home of a longtime friend, who was also the sister of Kateryna Panchenko – making her own journey from Odesa.

Panchenko recalled how her own husband hurriedly wrote notes giving her permission to take their two children out of Ukraine before driving the family to the border.

Families welcomed by community

Since arriving in West Vancouver, the families have been helped by the Ukrainian community here, said Maydan.

Her children have been welcomed at their local elementary school and have got back to playing basketball – a stable and happy activity in their lives.

But they remain haunted by the images from Ukraine on the news, including recent reports of more rocket strikes in their former city, and afraid for the many family members left behind.

Maydan, whose grandfather was Russian, said she can hardly believe the violence the Russian forces have unleashed on civilians. “Early on we thought they wanted our land and our people,” she said. “Now we think they just want our land.”

“When we left Odesa, we were thinking we’ll sit in Moldova for a week,” said Panchenko. But the war shows no sign of a quick ending.

And even when it does, she said, “You don’t know how in future Ukraine will rise from all these ruins.”

A fundraising dinner and photo exhibit to help provide humanitarian assistance to Ukrainian families is being held at West Vancouver's Royal Canadian Legion, 580 18th Street on May 7 at 5 p.m. The event is being coordinated by the UHelp Ukraine Society. Tickets are $50.