From Mariupol to Middlesex County: Ukrainian student finds refuge

·4 min read

First, he was in Mariupol, a besieged Ukrainian city bombarded for two months by Russian forces.

Then, he found himself in a refugee camp in Poland, crammed with thousands of other war-displaced Ukrainians.

Along the way, he went weeks without showering and struggled to stay healthy as he fought allergic reactions to the pets many refugees brought with them to the crowded camp.

Now, 21-year-old Maxim Korolov is in Coldstream, near London, a university history student-turned-refugee living more than 8,000 kilometres from home.

"I came to an absolutely different country," said Korolov. "It looks like a different world from mine."

He's far from alone, and some volunteer groups trying to help say havens are urgently needed to get Ukrainian refugees like Korolov back on their feet here.

More than 10 per cent of Ukraine's population — nearly six million people in an exodus expected to grow to more than eight million — have already fled the country since Russia launched its unprovoked war in late February.

Millions more have been displaced within the country.

Korolov wound up with Richard Hone, head of one of the two volunteer groups in the London area making an urgent appeal for anyone who can put up refugees.

“We're at the point where we're now getting five to eight requests a day for hosting (refugees)," said Hone, who heads Ukraine Help Middlesex.

“It's getting increasingly difficult," he said. "The problem is, you have some hosts who say, 'Well, I’m good with a mom and one (toddler), or I can take a couple of teens or a mom and dad.' Everyone has their own particular comfort level, but we don't always have somebody that connects with us that fits that comfort level.”

Both Hone’s group and Oxford County of Ontario Helps Ukraine, are encouraging area residents who can help to get in touch with them.

“It’s a humanitarian effort. We're kind of all in this. We've watched on the news, so we are part of it,” said David Murray, head of the Oxford group.

There are other ways to help, he said, “whether it be through donations, either by clothing or monetary, through the organizations.”

The two groups are among a number of agencies trying to resettle Ukrainians in London, where more than 30 families who fled the violence have recently arrived.

Korolov, who fled Mariupol on March 20, said he had trouble breathing in the refugee camp with his allergies.

After a month there with nothing more than a change of clothes, he said he used Facebook to connect with a family in Canada.

"We mobilized (him) out here," Hone said.

“We have some neighbours who . . . stepped forward to pay for his flights and had other people who are willing to host him. He effectively had one backpack and one change of clothes, so we put him on a train from Warsaw to Vienna to get him out of the camps.”

One train ride and three flights later, Korolov landed in Toronto last week.

He’s been living with Hone and his family since, a world so unlike what he left behind, even small things like the electrical outlet he uses to charge his phone are different.

Korolov, whose family remains in the industrial city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, said the war remains a shock almost three months after Russia unleashed its invasion.

“It's absolutely an appalling thing for our people and for our country,” he said. “We didn’t expect that from Russia, because we are brother nations. We fought in World War II side by side. We still can't believe it. It's disastrous.”

About 100 families have either arrived in Southwestern Ontario or are in the process of arriving, Hone said.

The Canadian government is allowing displaced Ukrainians to live, work and study in Canada for up to three years as temporary residents.

As the conflict rages back home, and uncertain when he will be able to return, Korolov said he finds comfort knowing he can do what he loves most — swim.

“I was on a national swimming team of my region in Ukraine,” he noted, adding he’s been able to practise in Canada thanks to neighbours who offered up their pool.

“I think swimming calms me."

The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada

Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press

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