Leaving home a matter of life and death

Editor’s note: This is the fourth installment in a five-part series about local efforts to help Ukrainian refugees. Today we profile the work of a different organization, Ukrainian Canadian Volunteers Association, which is also helping settle newcomers in the South Okanagan and those who remained behind. People indiscriminately gunned down on city streets, the almost-constant piercing sound of the air raid sirens and families cowering in shelters praying for the bombing to end. That’s everyday life for many people in Ukraine since a major escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian War in February 2022. Liudmyla Shkyn, 60, and her mother Hanna Opanasko, 81, who now live in Penticton, were two of the lucky ones, barely managing to escape the bloodshed.

The reluctant decision to leave their homeland was not an option but literally a matter of life and death, even though it meant leaving behind Shkyn’s son, Oleksandr, a member of the military. Liudmyla shares her still vivid memories through her daughter Svitlana’s translation, the horror of that day less than a year ago when the family first began its escape. “The Russians started shelling and bombing, our street was under attack,” she recalled. “We all ran to the basement, but then realized we had little chances to survive due to the weapons the Russians started to use. It was everything — airplanes, tanks, all heavy weapons, they wanted to destroy everything in their way.” Her son Oleksandr got them safely from the house to the car which just had enough gas to get them to their destination. He would call to them between explosions to let them know when they could run to the vehicle. Their first route was blocked by a downed tree across the road as four neighbours’ houses burned around them.

After dropping them off at the shelter, he returned to pick up Svitlana’s father and the large family dog, Tyson, who Oleksandr had rescued in a previous military campaign in eastern Ukraine. “He (Oleksandr) then saw our neighbour when he went back to our house, she was killed by a piece of rocket, half of her head was cut off,” said Liudmyla. “Entire family ran outside because the house nearby got on fire… luckily kids only got minor wounds. “Our car still has a hole from the pieces of the rocket. Lots of pieces of rocket were in the yard and on the roof. It was a miracle our house did not get on fire.” The family spent a night in the shelter with other frightened adults, children and animals. Fortunately, her daughter Svitlana, who had returned home to Penticton after a brief visit just weeks before the invasion, was able to find a driver to get them out of the region. They joined a parade of other vehicles on the dangerous journey during which an explosion next to their car resulted in several vehicles turning around and going back to the city. “That was a mistake as the next day the bridge was bombed and people had no possibility to escape the city,” said Liudmyla. “Luckily, we took the risk and kept driving.” Her mother Hanna lived in another village and recalled her own escape. “It was the beginning of April, two men came by cab (to give her a ride), they were scared and took triple the price for the ride. It was a dangerous route, because Russian troops were leaving Ukraine in our region at that moment and were shooting everything in their way.”

During this time, Svitlana, a member of the Ukrainian Canadian Volunteers Association (UCVA), worked frantically from 8,400 kilometres away to make their escape happen. “My family got lucky,” said Svitlana, who first came to Canada in 2016 to go to school. “But there are many others who are still in the Ukraine that we absolutely need to support and we want to keep helping families there, there are many other fathers, brothers, mothers and grandmothers who need us.” UCVA members work tirelessly to raise money and get supplies for those who remain in the Ukraine, everything from military supplies to wheelchairs and just the basic necessities of life. Svitlana’s own family members eventually joined up on their journey and, after many nights on the road, made their way safely to France and a flight out to Canada and their new home. “Landed in Canada, my first feeling was relief, finally we can get settled and not wait for something unknown, except keep praying for our son to survive,” said Liudmyla. “When I saw my daughter, I was very happy, of course we thought we might never see each other again.” While she can’t express her gratitude enough to the people of Canada for making her feel at home in her new country, she has one wish: “I hope to go to Ukraine soon, where my home is, my house, my garden, my son.”

Mark Brett, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Penticton Herald