'I couldn't just sit back and watch'
When she began helping Ukrainians escape their war-torn country, Jennifer Martison realized getting people out was only half the battle.
“The Ukrainians face huge challenges when they arrive here (in Canada), the government bureaucracy and requisite paperwork is daunting,” said Martison, who started the Ukraine Nightingale Project (UNP) last fall to help refugees of the war.
“I mean, a lot of English speaking people have huge problems doing all the paperwork that has to be done. Something as simple as taking a driver’s test, the first thing to do is teach them the alphabet so they can pass the eye test That kind of puts it in perspective.”
Like most people, she first watched the escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict last February when Russia invaded the Ukraine.
“I was horrified and I was in tears a lot of the time and became obsessed with it,” recalled Martison. “I thought about it and decided rather than feeling sad and horrified and helpless it would be better to see what I could do to help.
“I couldn’t just sit back and watch this human tragedy unfold.”
After seeing the 1,000 Flights Out concert in Oliver last March, which raised $29,000 for Ukrainian aid, she decided to do a fundraiser of her own.
She held a fun event in her neighbourhood south of Penticton, which brought in $20,000 in one afternoon.
Then, in conjunction with the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) and matching corporate grants, that money turned into $200,000 to help Ukraine.
ADRA is the humanitarian agency of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and is also part of the 1,000 Rides Out program.
After her own fundraiser, Martison was asked if she could help a family of seven struggling to get out of the war-torn country.
She managed to find a temporary home for the Andreichenko family but then learned they couldn’t afford plane tickets to get to Canada.
At that point she and another Penticton man then decided to chip in to get them here.
“That’s when I realized there were so many more people that needed help and that I would look at it on a larger scale,” she said.
So, in late September, the UNP was born.
The name Nightingale was chosen because of the bird’s importance in Ukrainian culture, known as a “creator of sweet homes, a builder of homes and a harbinger of homes.” It’s also regarded as a term of personal endearment.
“I think it’s just too easy to sit back and watch something on the news. But I think if everybody can just take a little piece of it, together we really can make a difference for these people,” said Martison.
The Andreichenko family, including four children, first fled their Chernihiv home last April after the Russians began shelling their neighbourhood but their father, however, had to remain in Ukraine to defend his country.
Leaving everything behind, their long journey to escape included six weeks in a bomb shelter and many days on the road.
“They were nomads,” said Martison. “Those children saw things that children should never have to see.”
As part of her organization’s support work, the UNP helps provide translators where possible for new arrivals.
“We’re working with a Russian woman from Oliver – most Ukrainians speak Russian as well as Ukrainian – and she is just incredible,” said Martison of Tanya Wildman.
“We take her to all medical appointments, anywhere where we feel our Ukrainian families need to be part of the conversation, need to be heard.”
Wildman also helped out at a recent dental screening program for Ukrainian families through Interior Health.
“With the language difference we wouldn’t have been able to do (the clinic) without her,” said UNP medical lead Janet Bednasczyk at the end of the program.
Because of the increasing volume of work with new arrivals, Martison is hoping to find other people who can help her organization.
For more information go to the UNP website: www.ukrainenightingaleproject.ca.
Mark Brett, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Penticton Herald