A Calgary couple has helped nearly 200 Ukrainian refugees fly to Canada with buddy pass program

·5 min read
Help From Canada co-founders Michael Garnett, bottom left, Rebecca Rider, bottom right, local host Cory Wowk, top left, and Ukrainian refugee Mykola Kovryshn and his newborn daughter Milan, top right. Kovryshn and his family arrived in Calgary using the buddy pass program.  (Lucie Edwardson/CBC - image credit)
Help From Canada co-founders Michael Garnett, bottom left, Rebecca Rider, bottom right, local host Cory Wowk, top left, and Ukrainian refugee Mykola Kovryshn and his newborn daughter Milan, top right. Kovryshn and his family arrived in Calgary using the buddy pass program. (Lucie Edwardson/CBC - image credit)

Michael Garnett spent 10 years of his life playing hockey in Russia and loved everything about it. But when the country he had once called home invaded Ukraine — his ancestral homeland — earlier this year, his heart broke.

"I just shut down. I couldn't believe that this country that I love — Russia —could just start attacking full on. I saw bombs hitting Kyiv and all these others cities and towns and I just felt sick. I had to do something," he said.

His wife Rebecca Rider, who is a pilot for a Calgary based airline WestJet, could see the toll it was taking on her husband, and encouraged him to find a way they could help the Ukrainian people.

Volunteering on the ground

The couple spent all of April in Poland volunteering at the border and driving Ukrainians to refugee centres. They then raised thousands of dollars to support refugees and spent time in Ukraine and Poland a second time in May to deliver supplies to shelters and orphanages.

When they returned home to Calgary the pair decided they wanted to do something long-term to help Ukrainians.

Lucie Edwardson/CBC
Lucie Edwardson/CBC

Around the same time, Rider received a message from a co-worker, another pilot, who had successfully collected 50 buddy passes from employees and used them to transport Ukrainians from European destinations to Canada. With his approval the couple has taken over and expanded on that program.

Buddy pass program takes off

Since then Rider and Garnett have received buddy pass donations from around 100 of the airline's employees and started an official charity called Help From Canada. They have now assisted almost 200 Ukrainians fleeing the war with flights to Canada.

"We've helped over 180 people get to Canada and 197 refugees travel on these discounted tickets, with the help of these donations," said Rider.

Mykola Kovyrshyn and his pregnant wife Nastiia Hrybovska, who already had a host family in Calgary, arrived in the city using two of the buddy passes in August.

"We were so happy. It was our chance to get to Canada and to be in a safe place," he said.

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But the future of the program is up in the air.

On Sunday evening, WestJet's spokesperson Morgan Bell issued a statement about the use of buddy passes.

"Employee travel privileges are not designed to support charitable or not-for-profit efforts as WestJet's Gift of Flight and Airport Community Giving programs are best tailored to fairly meet the needs of all of the communities that we support as they involve a thorough application and review process," she said.

"Employees are entitled to transfer buddy passes to friends and family, as long as they are used in accordance with WestJet's policies. These policies are in place to protect WestJet employees, their travel designees and friends and family to ensure the best travel journey possible."

Fundraising continues and the couple says they will keep using that money to try and get Ukrainians to Canada.

"These aren't just Ukrainian refugees, these are our friends," said Garnett. "These are the friends of the people of Canada and I think sometimes that gets forgotten."

'We feel at home'

People like Kovyrshyn and Hrybovska, who have seen the good it does, hope it can continue.

Just last week the couple welcomed a healthy baby girl, Milan.

"We didn't expect to be here, we thought we would be in Ukraine but our region and our plans were destroyed, so we did what we had to do for our baby to be born somewhere safe," he said.

"Here in Canada we feel at home with our host family and everyone who has helped us. We are making plans for the future with our host family to visit Ukraine after the war ends."

Corey Wowk, his wife and two daughters are hosting the family here in Calgary. He says without the help of the buddy passes, tickets to get the family to Canada were more than $1,000 each.

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"They were really, really challenged and stressed with trying to come over here in terms of Ukrainian income and the costs associated, and so to see Help From Canada step up and help them out was unbelievable and a huge stress relief," he said.

Wowk says having the family with them has brought new life and energy to their home.

"It's an amazing thing for our kids and for us, we get to meet this amazing couple and learn a new culture and we get to do our best to provide some kindness in the wake of the atrocities they have faced ... If everyone does their small part, each of these parts are absolutely essential."

'It's incredible'

Garnett and Rider say seeing families like Kovyrshyn and Hrybovska's thriving in Canada feeds their souls, and their desire to help more people.

"Having been in Ukraine, having heard the air raid sirens, having got to experience a bit of that fear and what was actually going on — and this family, their house got hit with an air strike early in the war — it's heartbreaking," said Garnett.

"And then seeing how we can get them here when they couldn't have afforded an plane ticket on their own, it's just absolutely powerful land incredible. Especially that we got a pregnant couple here ... and to see a baby born just a few days ago, it's incredible."

Rider agrees.

"Our first journey over to help Ukrainians, it was devastating. I would end up in the bathroom of a McDonalds breaking down because of the things we would see," she said. "So to experience that heartache, that pain and that anxiety and then to be on this side of the story where we get to celebrate a new life here in Canada, it's overwhelming."