A Comox Valley family hosting refugees from Ukraine says the experience has put issues of day-to-day life into perspective.
Stefan Szkwarek is a Canadian, with strong Ukrainian roots. Formerly from Winnipeg, he says his family immigrated to Canada in the 1950s to escape the Soviet Union and start a new life in Canada.
His heritage includes going to an all-Ukrainian school in Winnipeg, learning the language and being deeply immersed in Ukrainian culture.
Seeing events unfolding in Ukraine feel all too familiar for him.
Six months ago, Ukrainians Eugen Sushko and his wife Oksana Moisieieva purchased land in their home country, hoping to build a life with their two daughters.
However, all of that changed early one morning as Russian troops stormed Bucha.
“February 24 we woke up very early because we lived near Hostomel’ Aerodrom and Russian soldiers at 6 o’clock began their attack,” said Eugen. “We hear explosions and we had maybe 20 minutes to take some things, our girls, and leave our home very fast.”
The family fled their home and travelled to Chernivtsi, a city in western Ukraine near the Romanian border. They crossed into Romania to get to Bucharest, where they could get to an embassy, receive help and make their next steps.
Eugen described the trauma they were experiencing after fleeing, with every loud noise causing fear and anxiety after fleeing their war-stricken country.
“We couldn’t believe in places when we walked with our kids, after a week in those places Russian soldiers killed people,” said Eugen. “For me, it’s a nightmare.”
Meanwhile, in Canada Stefan was watching the events unfolding in disbelief.
“Obviously, that level of suffering when you’re seeing that in real-time happening again you’re just in shock,” he said. “I think everyone in the first few days of the war was very sad, very angry that this was happening.”
He says friends and family began working very rapidly to help the war effort, either organizing things at home or sending money overseas.
He said many are losing sleep because of the conflict, leaning on Ukrainians in Canada to help each other through the crisis.
When it came to helping a family come to Canada, Stefan says the decision was instant.
“Deciding to take a family in was a no-brainer, personally,” he said. “With the family background being what it is, it just felt like the right thing to do to help out other people, especially with young kids. You’re able to change their life in an instant from absolute calamity and terror.”
Oksana, Eugen’s wife, says they were able to find temporary housing while in Romania through a church, staying with multiple families in a small apartment for around one month.
However, they decided they needed to go farther and Europe was not safe. She says many countries were concerned the refugees would bring the war to their countries.
“We chose to go to Canada because we heard that the government of Canada offers some program which is easier to come to Canada and get a visa,” she said. “So we waited for this program for one or two weeks, then we applied for a visa.”
Oksana says they got their visas after 10 days. The issue was not having enough money to travel and not knowing anyone in Canada to stay with.
They were able to find Stefan Szkwarek and his family through an app called Ukraine Takes Shelter. Stefan would help them get tickets for their travels to Canada as they didn’t have much money.
Eugen, Oksana and their two children have now been living in the Comox Valley for one month. They say they feel safe, but other challenges including money, and finding a more permanent place to live and work are still being faced.
Stefan says they have not received much help from the federal government. However, the provincial government has been more helpful and support from the community has been very important.
“I’m now actually very cautious when I ask for clothing or furniture because the first couple times we did my empty garage turned very full and we had to turn people away,” he said.
He says the biggest ask for the family is financials, housing and work for them. Stefan and his wife Karen have started a gofundme page to help fund the refugees.
Throughout the experience, Stefan says it has been difficult with his family not being Ukrainian and taking care of another family. But, he says his military background makes him need to continue helping.
“Everyone has problems in their life, and it’s complicated. I have a busy job and I’m the president of the soccer club and I have issues I have to deal with every day,” he said.
“But this whole crisis has really put things in perspective and not to diminish the problems I have day-to-day, but they just seem a lot smaller after having to witness all the things that are happening in Ukraine.”
Stefan asks that Canadians and others continue to focus on Ukraine as the fight is far from over.