1 year after war began, Ukrainians in Windsor reflect on a life forever changed
One year ago, 23-year-old Karyna Nikashyna's life changed dramatically.
Her home country of Ukraine was under attack as Russia launched its military invasion on Feb. 24, 2022.
Nikashyna spent weeks in the basement of her apartment building in southeastern Ukraine, as rockets shattered nearby homes.
"It's really scary. It's dangerous," she recalled. "I was just too afraid to die. That's why I left."
Her hometown, Zaporizhzhia, has been hit by numerous attacks over the last year, and is near Europe's biggest nuclear plant, which Russian forces took over shortly after the war began. Ukraine and Russia have traded blame for shelling around it.
Her siblings wanted to stay in Ukraine because they had families and homes they did not wish to leave — but Nikashyna knew she had to go.
After first fleeing to the Czech Republic a few weeks after the war began, forced to leave her boyfriend and other loved ones behind, Nikashyna eventually arrived in Canada in May of last year, all by herself.
She spent her first few months in Canada in Leamington, Ont., with a host family before eventually settling in Windsor, Ont., in August.
"I'm very grateful that I'm here," she said, adding that coming to Canada was a "dream" she's had her whole life.
"It's open. It's free."
A former English teacher, Nikashyna has found a job in Windsor as a settlement counsellor at Windsor Women Working With Immigrant Women.
Luckily, months after she first arrived, her boyfriend Vladyslav was able to join her here, she explained.
But making this transition mostly by herself has taken a toll.
"I'm experiencing a little bit of depression," she said.
"I've been running, running, running... I didn't even pay attention [to] how hard it was actually."
The added stress of worrying about her relatives each and every day, fearing for their lives, is also a heavy weight to carry.
'A lot of them went through hell'
Nikashyna is one of more than 100 Ukrainian families and individuals who have come to Windsor since the war began.
The chair of the Windsor-Essex Supporting Ukrainian Newcomers (WESUN) organization says her group has assisted approximately 80-90 families and/or individuals in the past year.
"A lot of them went through hell in my opinion to get here just to be safe," said Andriana Pitre, the group's chair.
It's been a challenging year, she explained, navigating the needs of those arriving, understanding the different regulations set out by upper levels of government and helping struggling families find supports in the Windsor-Essex community.
"There's so much uncertainty surrounding their future that we want to make sure we make it as smooth and as comfortable as possible for them now. This way they feel safe. They feel a part of belonging in a community."
Pitre explains that the work over the past year has been very rewarding.
"I do this because when my grandparents came here [from Ukraine], I'm sure they had people helping them as well," she said.
Local parish has grown significantly
Father Tom Hrywna, the parish priest from Saints Vladimir and Olga Ukrainian Catholic Church in Windsor, has seen has parish grow as newcomers who fled the war started to attend Sunday mass.
He said there are now about 10 additional families of new arrivals in regular attendance.
"Everyone is obviously worried and following very closely what is happening in Ukraine," he said.
"Some people have expressed a desire to go back. Others, we've encountered some people who have come from Mariupol or Kherson who say there's nothing for me to go back to."
Nikashyna is one of those individuals who doesn't imagine a return home for herself.
"I do hope that I can stay in Canada. I don't want to go back to Ukraine," she said.
Vigil to be held for 1-year anniversary
She hopes to see the fighting in Ukraine come to an end soon with a peaceful resolution, but knows that even then, it would likely take many years for her country to recover.
In the meantime she is focusing on the "calm" that Windsor provides her, and reflects on how much her life has changed in the past year.
"I grew up a lot. I think really, really a lot, and really fast," she said.
She'll be sharing her story of fleeing Ukraine through the Shoe Project workshop with the University of Windsor. She and a number of other newcomer women will be presenting their stories of individual journeys to Canada at the Capitol Theatre on Sunday.
For the one-year anniversary since the full-scale invasion in Ukraine, Saints Vladimir and Olga Ukrainian Catholic Church will hold a prayer service at noon on Friday.
There will also be a resistance rally and candlelit vigil held at City Hall at 6 p.m.
"The early days of the war, everyone said Ukraine's going to fall in days and then it was weeks, within a month, and we're one year later and Ukraine still stands. Ukraine is fighting, they're defending themselves," Hrywna stressed.
"They're defending their right to exist, their right to freedom, their right to democracy. And so that's very much the flavour of this rally at 6 p.m.."