Ukrainians Mykola Prysiazhnyi and Hanna Palamarchuk are settling into their new home in Onanole after fleeing their war-torn country.
The couple is the first to arrive in the community as part of the Municipality of Harrison Park’s initiative to aid Ukrainians displaced by the Russian invasion that began Feb. 24. Elkhorn Resort Spa and Conference Centre has partnered with the municipality to offer housing and employment to those displaced by the war.
Prysiazhnyi and Palamarchuk are currently working at Elkhorn Resort as restaurant servers after arriving in the community on April 13. Wednesday marked their third day on the job."So far, so good. We are really enjoying our working place," Palamarchuk said. "Canada is such a beautiful country."
Moving to Canada has been a unique experience and they are still adjusting to some of the cultural differences. It feels like a new world unlike anywhere they have ever been, Palamarchuk said, especially with the wide-open spaces.
"All this open space makes you feel free."
After the war started, the Canadian government expedited Ukrainian applications for refuge.
Ukrainians who have applied to come to Canada are doing so under a special visitor visa program that would allow them to work and study for three years while they decide whether or not to return home. As of March 30, approximately 60,000 Ukrainians have applied to come to Canada under that program, and another 12,000 have come under traditional immigration streams since January.
Prysiazhnyi and Palamarchuk first wanted to move to Canada in 2012 but did not qualify as permanent residents. In 2017 they launched a small business that designs and produces leather goods.
After five years, they were finding success and the business became sustainable, allowing them to apply as self-employed permanent residents.
"We actually wanted to come to live in Canada for quite a long time already — and always the end would be Manitoba," Prysiazhnyi said. "It is a safer country, plus we were aiming for some rural area because we lived in Kyiv, the big city … we were just looking for a safe and nice place to live."
For the past decade, Prysiazhnyi and Palamarchuk have been living in Kyiv.
In the months leading up to the Russian invasion, they had growing concerns war was imminent in Ukraine.
"We really hoped that it wouldn’t happen. For the past month [before the invasion] we had an emergency bag next to our door in our apartment, just in case we would have to move and move fast," Prysiazhnyi said.
They decided to flee when war broke out on Feb. 24. The sounds of rockets and explosions could be felt and heard from their home.
The crisis in Ukraine has the potential to displace up to 6.7 million people and affect 18 million people, nearly half the population of Ukraine, according to the UN Refugee Agency. Since Feb. 24, more than four million people have fled Ukraine to neighbouring countries, including Poland and Moldova.
Prysiazhnyi and Palamarchuk decided it was no longer safe in Kyiv as Russian troops advanced. They bought tickets to get to the sanctuary of Poland, bringing with them three backpacks and cash for their journey.
They learned of Onanole after reading about the Elkhorn Resort-led initiative through an online article. They immediately sent an email looking to connect with the resort in the hopes the quiet cottage country could become their new home base.
When the resort responded with an invitation of housing and employment, they felt hope for the first time since the war began.
"That was the first time since the war started that we realized some kind of future is possible," Prysiazhnyi said.
Stepping foot on Onanole soil for the first time felt surreal. The initial days spent in the rural community felt like a dream because it seemed too good to be true.
The next major step for the couple will be acquiring driver’s licences in the summer, a significant feat for two people who have never operated cars.
They are hoping to work at the Elkhorn Resort for about a year and relaunch their small business.
"We hope to make Canada our new home. We don’t have any kids yet, but we are planning to have them someday in the future, so we want a better life for our kids. We think it’s the perfect country to raise your kids here," Palamarchuk said.
Elkhorn general manager Chris Phillips picked the couple up from the Winnipeg airport himself.
"It’s really hitting home that it’s making a pretty big difference to a few people’s lives," Phillips said. "You couldn’t ask for a better first couple."
The Elkhorn Resort is working to bring more Ukrainians to the town, including two others families who have reached out to the resort directly. The goal is to help families settle and regain independence after living in limbo during the war.
Phillips praised the community at large for rallying behind refugees and offering donations and support to help the new community members feel at home.
"We haven’t had to contact any government agencies or put our name on any list willing to take people, because it’s coming in at a nice pace and it’s coming directly to us because they heard that we’re willing to house people and that there are jobs," Phillips said. "It’s a win-win for everyone."
» email@example.com, with files from The Canadian Press
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Chelsea Kemp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun