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The first refugees arrive from Ukraine thanks to a series of events involving two former politicians, a Polish race-car driver and a donated airplane. Now, a mother and son in Alberta look ahead to an uncertain future

Ukrainian refugee Tetiana Sviderska, right, helps Irina Pivovarchuk of Mundare, Alta., to make paska, a sweet bread traditionally served during Easter.Photography by Megan Albu/The Globe and Mail

Tymofii Sviderskyi didn’t understand why he had to leave his home and country, didn’t know why he had to say goodbye to his father and the rest of their family and friends and go somewhere far away, to a place he’d never been. Tymofii was only 11, and to him war meant people fighting. But as he and his mother left their home in the Sokal area of Lviv Oblast in western Ukraine in early March, it was peaceful. There were no bombs, no tanks. There was no war there.

At least not yet.

But the adults understood all too well what was coming.

There was no question Tymofii’s father, Volodymyr Sviderskyi, would volunteer for the territorial defence and fight for the land and nation. But the family decided Tymofii’s mother, Tetiana Sviderska, would take the boy to Canada to join her relatives outside Edmonton. Ms. Sviderska didn’t want to leave. They were hosting refugees from the east at their house, and she wanted to stay and help the country in whatever way she could. But she knew it was best for Tymofii to be somewhere safe.

It was winter in Ukraine, and mother and son left for Poland with one bag each, carrying only their documents and some coats and clothes to protect them from the cold.

Volunteers Ian Melnyk and Helen Facsko package boxes for Ukraine at a warehouse in Edmonton.

Former MLA Thomas Lukaszuk helped spearhead the donation effort.

Like many in Canada, Thomas Lukaszuk had watched the early days of the invasion of Ukraine with dismay. For him, it felt personal. He had come to Canada as a refugee as a child in 1982, after martial law was declared in Poland “compliments of the Russian government,” as he sometimes said. He would always remember that feeling of getting off the plane in Nova Scotia with his mother and brother, feeling so grateful to be safe but also wishing they hadn’t had to leave their home. Like receiving a precious gift that has been forced upon you.

He was 13 then. Now, almost exactly 40 years later, he was in a position to do something to help. It felt to him like a circle.

He called up his friend, Ed Stelmach, one of the most well-known figures in Alberta’s Ukrainian community.

“Let’s do something,” Mr. Lukaszuk said.

The two men had been high-ranking politicians in the province – Mr. Stelmach, a former Progressive Conservative premier and the first Alberta premier of Ukrainian heritage; Mr. Lukaszuk, a former PC MLA and deputy premier – and while their efforts were not political, their experience in government meant they had connections and a platform, and understood how to make things happen.

Volunteer Marlene Borys sorts items for children; nearby, firefighter uniforms wait to be packed.

At first, they planned only to gather some emergency supplies, and maybe ship them to Ukraine by courier. But it seemed like everybody wanted to help, and donations poured in. Within days, they had so many donations they needed – and were given – two warehouses to deal with the deluge.

Collection days at the Polish Hall were so busy they had to bring in police to direct traffic, as hundreds of cars and trucks lined up to drop things off. There were donations from businesses, organizations and individuals, everybody giving what they could. Some brought a single box of diapers, others a truckload of supplies. Among the donations were valuable pieces of medical equipment and medication, critical life-saving supplies that were needed urgently, and, it became clear, could not wait to be shipped to Ukraine by sea can.

Mr. Lukaszuk remembered Robert Mucha, a Polish-Canadian race-car driver he’d met on a flight to Warsaw many years earlier. Mr. Mucha knew a lot of people in Poland, and had invited Mr. Lukaszuk to get in touch if he ever needed anything. So, Mr. Lukaszuk dug out his contact information.

“Do you remember me?” Mr. Lukaszuk asked, and then: “Do you know anyone at LOT Polish Airlines?”

After a couple calls, Mr. Lukaszuk had been offered a 787 Boeing Dreamliner from LOT, and, a few calls after that, had secured a donation from Shell for 50 tonnes of jet fuel to fly it return to Edmonton from Warsaw. A cargo handling company would load the cargo free of charge. The Edmonton Airport would waive its fees. There were many details to be worked out, but everything seemed to slide into place.

They could get 32 tonnes of essential supplies to Ukraine quickly by air at no cost. But if a plane was flying empty to Edmonton from Warsaw, why wouldn’t they try to get people in the seats?

Julia Bennett sits with Ms. Sviderska.

Alberta resident Julia Bennett was at a meeting about sponsoring refugee families from Ukraine when the former premier, Mr. Stelmach, mentioned a chartered plane that would be coming from Warsaw. After the meeting, Ms. Bennett called the Ukrainian Canadian Congress and asked how she could get her cousin Ms. Sviderska and Tymofii on the flight.

The government of Canada was planning for an influx of people fleeing Ukraine, but the LOT charter plane would be the first large group to arrive, and there were a number of logistics to be worked out. Dealing with the offices of the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister in Canada, officials in Poland, and the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, Mr. Lukaszuk knew there was a strong will to make things work. But getting people on the plane was still a challenge. Even in wartime, there are rules. Those wanting to come to Canada would need travel documents, biometrics, a visa and a family to sponsor them.

And, given the need to get the cargo to Ukraine as soon as possible, it all had to be done quickly. The plane would leave Warsaw on March 28, 10 days away.

As the day of departure approached, about 70 people were approved to travel. Some were being added right until the plane departed. Others changed their minds at the last minute and decided to stay in Poland. It was a big decision to go so far away. Many Ukrainians wanted to stay close to home.

The plane lifted off with 64 people on board LOT Airlines flight 7605, direct from Warsaw to Edmonton. Most of those leaving Ukraine had little more than the clothes they were wearing. Three children brought their dogs. One 17-year-old boy was travelling alone. His entire family had been killed in the war, and among the documents that had to be prepared for him were guardianship papers, giving custody to the distant relatives he would meet in Alberta.

Ms. Sviderska already had her visa to come to Canada when they learned about the flight, but Tymofii’s paperwork took longer. Everything came through just hours before the deadline. In a situation where so much was beyond their control, Ms. Bennett thought it felt like Canada.

At the home of Ms. Bennett's parents, the Pivovarchuks, father Bohdan and mother Irina stand with their daughter and Ms. Sviderska.

The town of Mundare is about an hour’s drive east of Edmonton, in an area that has been home to a large Ukrainian community for generations.

The town is a short drive from Vegreville, site of a 31-foot-tall decorated Ukrainian Easter egg, and just southwest of Glendon, which boasts the world’s largest perogy. Mundare is marked by a 42-foot tall statue of a ring of kielbasa, an ode to the famous Ukrainian garlic sausage produced in town by Stawnichy’s Meat Processing.

About 1.4 million Canadians consider themselves to be Ukrainian or of Ukrainian descent, the largest population outside Ukraine and Russia. The diaspora is particularly concentrated on the Prairies; Ukrainian Canadians make up about 15 per cent of the population of Manitoba, and 10 per cent of the population of Alberta. The highway to Mundare from Edmonton goes past the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, a museum dedicated to Ukrainian settlement in the province.

It had been a relief for Ms. Sviderska to get off the plane and find people welcoming them in Ukrainian, and then go to a town that felt comfortable, where there were so many things that felt like home.

People from the area stopped by or got in touch nearly every day to see if there was anything they could do to help, if there was anything Ms. Sviderska and her son needed to get settled.

People who could spoke to her in Ukrainian, even if they hadn’t used the language for years and were rusty. It meant a lot to Ms. Sviderska. She felt so grateful to be in Alberta, so grateful to everyone who helped them along the way.

Ms. Sviderska says she's glad for the welcome she's had in Mundare.

She felt particularly lucky to be with her family, and have people looking out for them. But it was hard, too. When Ms. Bennett took her to West Edmonton Mall, it was obvious Ms. Sviderska felt guilty to be there. They avoided talking about the war, but it was always with them.

The threat had moved nearer her family’s home in Ukraine. Rockets were coming in from Belarus, one landing just 30 kilometres from her house, not far from where her mother lives. Her sister, in Rivne, had seen the rockets flying. Every morning Ms. Sviderska checked her phone as soon as she woke up, anxious to see what had happened overnight.

She tried her best to shield Tymofii, but he’d found images of Bucha on the Internet. She consoled herself knowing that the Ukrainian children who survive would grow up so strong, that they would always fight for their country and people, and never forget what was done to them.

The chartered plane had returned to Warsaw from Edmonton filled with cargo, and still the warehouses were full. A legion of volunteers in Edmonton was working every day to sort and pack the rest of the donations, so they could be shipped to Ukraine by sea.

There were about 200 tonnes of items, worth about $20-million. There was canned food and diapers, bedding and sleeping bags, bulletproof vests, stretchers, firefighting gear, trauma kits, specialized equipment used to move heavy pieces of rubble, piles of walkers and crutches and wheelchairs. The basic things humans need to live, to save each other, to heal, to rebuild. Some boxes were decorated with words of support and prayers for peace.

Mr. Lukaszuk and Mr. Stelmach were already planning the next round of fundraising, but this time they would be looking for donations of money so the supplies could be purchased in Ukraine and Poland, supporting the economies there and eliminating the considerable work required in sorting and packing donations, along with the high cost of shipping goods overseas.

Ms. Pivovarchuk brushes egg yolk on some paska in progress; Mr. Pivovarchuk cuts up a finished loaf to serve.

On a sunny afternoon, cousins Ms. Bennett and Ms. Sviderska sat together at a kitchen table in Mundare, eating bowls of steaming, crimson borscht topped with sour cream. It was six weeks after the invasion of Ukraine, two weeks since Ms. Sviderska and Tymofii landed in Canada.

Ms. Bennett’s parents, Bohdan and Irina Pivovarchuk, were making loaves of babka for Easter, and the sweet, yeasty aroma of the bread hung in the room. On the table was a copy of the local newspaper, with a picture of Ms. Sviderska and Tymofii on the front page.

Ms. Bennett and her parents moved to Canada in 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union. Her father had been sending donations to military hospitals in Ukraine since 2014, and had gone three times to the front line. Now they were sending whatever they could to help their relatives. For them, too, it felt like repayment. To be helped, and then to one day be able to help. That was humanity, wasn’t it?

“This is normal,” Mr. Pivovarchuk said. “Everyone, every people, when somebody gives to you, you have to some time give back.”

“That’s just how humanity works,” Ms. Bennett said.

Tymofii was starting Grade 5 in Mundare the next week. He’d already gone to see the school and classroom, so he would have an idea of what to expect there. He’d met some kids and the principal, who speaks fluent Ukrainian.

Tymofii would be the first Ukrainian refugee to start school in Mundare, but other children will be coming. The community is sponsoring more families from Ukraine, and some are expected to arrive at the beginning of May.

The Government of Canada says 120,000 temporary resident visa applications were received from Ukraine between March 17 and April 6, and so far 31,895 have been approved. On April 9, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged an additional $100-million in humanitarian aid for Ukraine – in addition to the $245-million that has been given since January – and announced additional supports for those seeking to come to Canada. The government said about 15,000 Ukrainians had arrived in the country by early April.

For Ms. Sviderska, it still didn’t feel real. She was trying to learn English, and had gotten a job at Stawnichy’s. She is a hard worker – a teacher by trade – and she was glad to be starting a job. It made her feel more independent, and felt like one less thing to worry about.

In Ukraine, a family of refugees from the east was living at her house, with her chickens, with Tom the cat and Pushok the dog. That family was already planting Ms. Sviderska’s vegetable garden. Spring in Ukraine was about a month ahead of Alberta, where dwindling spots of snow still lingered on the vast fields outside Mundare.

“She says the hope is that eventually they’ll go home and things will go back to normal life. And everybody will return to their homes and start rebuilding their country, their cities,” Ms. Bennett said, translating for her cousin in English, as they sat together in the kitchen. One of the fresh loaves of babka had been cut in pieces on a plate, and the sun outside was bright.

Ms. Sviderska wanted people to know that Ukrainians were peaceful people, who just wanted to live their lives. Her eyes brimmed with tears. “She said we are a strong people, and we will defeat this enemy,” Ms. Bennett translated. “And this country is going to be stronger than before.”

Helping Ukraine: More from The Globe and Mail

Caravan of hope

Ukrainian children with cancer, trapped in their hospitals by the Russian assault, were spirited to safety in Poland in a complex rescue mission in March. The Globe and Mail got to ride along.

The Globe and Mail

How Canadians are helping

How can I help Ukraine? Resources and tips for Canadians

Canadians join efforts to save Ukraine’s digital history from erasure

Ukrainian-Canadian musicians find respite from grief and rage on stage

The Globe in Poland

For Ukrainian refugee couple, baby’s birth in Poland is a story of hope, faith and charity

Relief House in Warsaw giving refugees from Mariupol shelter, and a place to start over

Ukrainians and residents in Warsaw, once strangers and now roommates, try to find common ground

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