Varvara and her daughter Solomia arrived in Fort Simpson with just a few personal items after a long journey that began after Russia invaded their home country, Ukraine.
The two arrived in the Dehcho village on an Air Tindi flight late last week. Their trip to the Northwest Territories had been organized by the Village of Fort Simpson and an old friend, Andrii Panshyn.
Panshyn, a Ukrainian immigrant himself, came to Canada in 2011.
For months, he has been watching the situation in Ukraine unfold in horror. He said he leapt at the chance to organize safe passage for Varvara and her child, who is also his goddaughter.
This interview was recorded on April 27, 2022. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Caitrin Pilkington: I know you are Ukrainian yourself, so naturally you would take a strong interest in helping with the refugee effort. How were you involved in the efforts to get Varvara here, away from the fighting?
Andrii Panshyn: We organized everything. This is my old friend. When I was a student in pharmacy school, I used to work part-time as a pharmacy assistant in Ukraine. When I was 18 or 19 years old, I met this person in a pharmacy and we became friends. And then I moved to Canada. Eleven years later, the war started, so I told her that, you know, probably she should move from Kyiv to a safer place, at least temporarily. And her daughter is my goddaughter. So we're like a family.
Varvara managed to get to the Polish border. And after they crossed the border, we help them to find a place to stay. I filled out documents for her. Financially, we were supporting her all the way here. We had some money, but it was really not enough. Luckily, the Village of Fort Simpson and just regular people helped us financially.
We managed to get a ticket for her, pay for a hotel in Edmonton, and then buy tickets for the airlines. It was a long way but finally, luckily, they're here. And I have full house of women now, because it's me, my wife, my mother, Varvara and her daughter.
How are they doing after the journey? I’m sure it’s been a big adjustment.
You know, everything is new! Starting from trucks. You know, in Europe cars are way smaller, like 1.6 litres, and here there are huge Ford F-150s everywhere.
In general, everything is similar, but all the specifics like food, car, language are different. But they're getting support from everywhere and everyone so it's an easier transition. This week, we're going to go and talk to the principal at the school in order to get her kid into kindergarten. Meanwhile, I'm working on her social insurance number, and I'm helping her with a résumé so she can start working.
In some ways it’s the typical path of the immigrant, similar to my experience, but the circumstances are so different. I was moving to Canada from a safe place. Their path was way more dangerous and complicated than mine. So we're glad to help.
How did the community find out you were doing this?
I actually didn't advertise! But in Fort Simpson, everyone knows everyone, and everyone knew that we're from Ukraine. So of course, when all these things started, people are coming to the pharmacy or to my place asking how they can help, what they can do.
In the beginning of the war, I asked people to sign a petition for the government to facilitate visa requirements for Ukrainians. So that was done.
But in terms of the fundraising, it was people's initiative to give. If they had $5 to spare they gave $5, if they had $100 they gave $100. People were doing that on their own. And then the village contacted me to ask how they can help. That actually worked out really well because, again, I couldn't cover all expenses on my own. I was also helping to my father, who recently arrived in Canada, and many friends who lost their jobs in Ukraine – so every paycheque we pretty-much send back home and help them, help the Ukrainian army and volunteers to withstand these hard, hard times.
What does it mean to be able to have pulled this off? To have made sure these people you care about are safe?
When things started, I was ready to go home and fight, even though I have my wife here and my mother to support. But then, our minister of defence and our president said pretty-much that if you don't have any military experience, you better stay where you are and support the country economically. They don't need people who don't have military experience. I have held a gun maybe twice in my life, so, it was really nothing. But if there will be a need for everyone to come back, I will.
I’m not going to lie, I would be really scared to do that, but I want to help and if that’s how they need help, it will be done. But right now, I feel like I’m more effective here, supporting the country, supporting volunteers. They have people there. They are lacking resources. And if I can help somehow with resources, I’ll do that.
The situation now... it’s hard to explain. We’re all getting used to the strangest things. I talk to my friends back home and they say they hear bombing, but they’re not scared any more. And it’s horrible getting used to these things. So I hope this will end and people will forget this horror dream.
Thank you so much for your time.
I'm really grateful because the more that people know about this, it's very important for me personally, but for every Ukrainian as well.
For people who have stayed there to fight, it's very important for them to know that the world is backing them, that nobody's forgotten. That's what gives people the belief and the force to fight to protect their land.
Caitrin Pilkington, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cabin Radio