Guided by faith and friends both old and new from around the world, Elena Riznyk and her eight-year-old daughter Polina are enjoying the quiet serenity on the outskirts of Strathroy in Adelaide Metcalfe.
“I like this town. It’s very magic because it’s not a big town. It’s really quiet… It’s good for me. All of these beautiful houses with lanes and green grass, everything is perfection. It’s good to be here,” said Riznyk.
That calm, small-town life comes at the end of a long, dangerous journey from her war-torn country of Ukraine. Friends and family are still risking their lives back home, including her husband Slava.
In a way, the journey started years ago.
“For years, I was studying in Christian seminary RITE. This seminary is friends with Canadians, and I met through this seminary one very good woman, a Canadian, and we just had a good relationship.
“And after the war started, I looked for where I can go. But there was no opportunity to come here, and we went to Poland,” explained Riznyk.
Her friend Thea Van Dixhoorn knew Rick and Anje Boer who are members of the Providence United Reform Church in Strathroy. They were looking to offer up space in their home to a Ukrainian family in need, and picked up Riznyk and Polina from Toronto Pearson Airport in the wee hours of May 28.
Heading for Poland was not an easy decision to make for Riznyk, given the danger and the fact Slava and other family would be staying behind.
Their home in Poltava, on the main road between the capital Kiev and the large city of Kharkiv, was surrounded by war but spared the worst of it. There was still a constant risk that the bombs would drop or Russian soldiers would start shooting at any moment.
The safety and love for Polina had to take precedence over patriotism and love of country.
“I would stay there too. Just because of my daughter, I have to bring her in some safe place,” said Riznyk.
“It’s very difficult for children. I know some children who are so afraid that when they hear some strong voices or something like that, they begin to cry. And nobody can do anything [for] them because they are so afraid.”
So she drove.
Two days and two nights to the Polish border with Polina and a carload of other children. Then another day of driving in Poland before finally reaching Slava’s cousin near the city of Krakow, where she would be for the next couple months before getting to Canada.
The neighbouring country is estimated to have taken in over 3.5 million refugees from Ukraine. The United Nations estimates 14 million Ukrainian civilians have fled their homes since the Russian invasion started Feb. 24.
Riznyk is keeping busy here. She still works in broadcasting for Finnish Christian television network Heaven TV7. She is looking for a part-time job here that can use her journalistic, graphic design, and various other media skills.
Heart in two places
Riznyk is living in two places at once in her mind and heart, which was obvious when asked how she herself was doing.
“Better than we could imagine, because everyone do their best for us and it’s really helpful. When you know that you are not alone, when you know that God is with you, when you know that a lot of people around you who would like to help you, to support you, to pray with you and for you, it’s really helpful.
“Of course, we are missing our home. We are missing our church, our friends, our jobs, etc.,” said Riznyk.
There is still work to be done for her home country.
Slava is a youth pastor and built pools in Bucha, a town that made international headlines for the horror found left behind after Russian troops retreated. Slava was offered a place to stay in western Ukraine, which is seeing less bombardment, but stayed in his hometown where is help is so needed.
Riznyk described a united Ukraine that had so many stepping up to fight that Slava has to wait his turn.
“There are too many ready to fight because everyone understands it’s your country, it’s your land, and someone just come to you and want to take it away. And everyone is just so brave and courageous,” said Riznyk.
“My brother, my husband and my brother-in-law, they went to this military office and the military just put them in the line, and when they need them, they’ll just call and say, ‘we need you.’”
Riznyk is doing her part in the desperate search for supplies that is keeping the Ukraine army from fighting back even stronger.
Slava pulled together a team to make kneepads for the soldiers on the battlefields. Riznyk bought up all the materials in Poland she could to send to him. She also bought 350 pairs of gloves for the Ukrainian army.
Civilians were also getting help from Riznyk as she was the mode of transportation for many trying to get from the Polish border to the place they were staying.
“Also we’re trying to help families who want to leave Ukraine but they need some help… because they’re afraid,” explained Riznyk.
“People understand they need to save our children but they don’t know how. They don’t know where we will go because even if you go to another country, you still need some help. There are not [enough] places where to live.
“People are just living in schools, in their sport [facilities], they’re sleeping on the floor. And if you have children with some special needs, you can’t live this way — you need something better. So I’m trying to help people and to help them leave Ukraine and maybe settle somewhere else.”
Stepping up to help
With all that help she is giving, many in the Strathroy area are doing their best to make mother and daughter’s transition as easy as possible.
It started with the Boers patiently following Covid protocols and waiting hours in the parking lot outside of the airport terminal with a Ukrainian flag to bring them home, arriving back to the house around 3am.
They had video chats since April 4, but this was their first face-to-face meeting.
“She came with only one suitcase for herself, and her daughter had one little one. That’s all they came with,” said Rick Boer.
But he got to work going to local businesses and asking if there is anything they could do to help. The response was almost overwhelming.
Restaurants giving free meals, $100 of meat every month, groceries, gift cards, clothes, and gifts of cash.
And maybe most exciting for Polina, a new bike.
The support kept bouncing their way even while being interviewed for this story, with a neighbour dropping off a trampoline.
“Rick is so organized, he went around and tells the story. And everybody is in awe,” said Anje.
Now Polina is adjusting to school, where even there she is getting help from a girl near her age who knows how to speak Ukrainian.
Math is her specialty, which Riznyk said comes from her dad.
Polina had not traveled much before the chaos struck home, even within her own country.
“Of course she misses (her family), but we have to do (this) and we have to be here for this time, and we just think of this like traveling for us; it’s new experience for us; it’s new meetings for us, it’s new people for us,” said Riznyk, who described Canadians as open and very polite.
Under the Canada-Ukraine authorization for emergency travel (CUAET), Ukrainians are able to apply to stay here temporarily. The latest numbers from the federal government show nearly 260,000 applications have been received, with over 120,000 approved so far. About 35,000 Ukrainians have arrived in Canada this year, according to Canada Border Services.
“We appreciate everything that is done for us here and we are grateful to the government for the opportunity to come, to the family of Boer for the warm welcome and arrangement of absolutely all household issues, to Providence United Reform Church for always open doors and to everyone who is not indifferent and sincerely supports us and prays for our church and family in Ukraine,” said Riznyk.
As Riznyk said, every sort of help is needed. That ranges from taking in refugees, to donations of money, food and supplies.
Chris Gareau, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Middlesex Banner