From Kyiv to Poland, the Netherlands and finally Canada, one refugee family has found a safe haven and a warm welcome in Carberry.
Modar and Mariia Al-Sharbaji were living in Kyiv, the capital city of Ukraine, when Russia declared war on their country in February. Modar said that everyone at his company, where he worked in graphic design, was worried about the political climate and tensions with Russia at the time. They were instructed to work remotely for the next few days, never imagining that soon they would be fleeing for their lives.
That night started out much the same as usual for the Al-Sharbaji family. Modar and Mariia had dinner and settled down to watch a movie. They went to bed, but were awoken by what felt like a shockwave around 5 a.m.
“Our building was literally shaking. The windows were shaking, and we started to hear the sounds of missiles exploding not far from our house. That night, five missiles fell around our area. The dogs started barking. The noise was just terrible,” Modar said.
Modar went up to the roof of the building to investigate, and was met with a sight out of a post-apocalyptic film: the sky was full of smoke and was thick with the smell of gunpowder. The Al-Sharbajis lived near the main airport in Kyiv, which was a target for Russian attacks from the start of the war.
The family fled to the building’s basement for safety, trying to wrap their heads around what was going on. For 40 minutes, despite desperately searching for news on television and the internet, no information was released to the Ukrainian public. All they had to go on, Mariia said, was word from their friends and neighbours, and the never-ending barrage of photos and videos showing the destruction of their city.
On the second day, Modar said the family hoped the situation would become less dangerous.
“We thought … maybe it was just a one-time thing the Russians did, to deliver a message or to reach some agreement together on the political level. We just sat down and waited, reading the news and watching television.”
That night another five missiles were fired, this time at 4 a.m., and again the family made their way to the basement to shelter along with their neighbours.
“We had a lot of newborn babies there. People were coming with their pets, and kids were crying. You can’t explain to a kid what’s going on, why in the middle of the night they needed to go downstairs to the basement. They can’t understand what’s going on. They were just crying and scared,” Modar said.
On the third day of the war, the Ukrainian army shot down a Russian airplane that flew over the airport in Kyiv. When it fell, it crashed into residential buildings. That was the final straw for the Al-Sharbajis. It was then that Modar realized they needed to make a move.
“The situation was getting more serious, and the Russians were starting to approach the capital of Kyiv.”
The family packed up what they could bring, including their cat and dog, and fled west. They stayed in the western part of the country for a few days, hoping the situation would calm down and that they could return home. Their parents were still in the city, along with Mariia’s sister, Olena, and her two children, 14-year-old Artem and six-year-old Amaliia. Suddenly, it seemed like it was too late for the family to be reunited, as Russian soldiers began to destroy roads and railways heading west.
After five days in western Ukraine, Modar and Mariia fled to the Polish border on March 1. The situation, even in the western part of their country, had grown more dangerous. When they crossed into Poland, Mariia said they were overwhelmed by the support they received.
“No matter what we needed, they provided everything. It was support that no one expected. Europe literally opened its arms for Ukrainians.”
At this point, the couple had been joined by Mariia’s sister and her children. They stayed in Poland for four days before Modar, who had worked at a company in Ukraine that had British ties, decided to head to the Netherlands, where his company also had some affiliations.
“We were very much on our own, but thank God, we received the help and support of the Dutch community and people, with food, clothing and transportation. They provided everything we needed to live a decent life while we were in the Netherlands.”
They stayed there for a few months but unfortunately, Modar’s company could not support them any longer. In the middle of March they heard about the Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel pathway. The pathway includes a one-time payment from the Canadian government — a non-taxable, direct deposit of $3,000 per adult and $1,500 per child (aged 17 and under). Modar said they decided to take advantage of it and seek a more permanent home in Canada.
“It’s not like we never wanted to go back to Ukraine, but we thought that Canada was one of the greatest countries we ever thought to move to. We thought it was a good chance to try our luck in Canada.”
The process of applying for the program and getting travel visas was very fast. The family got their visas in under 10 days, with their passports being sent to the Canadian embassy in London. Now the family’s biggest challenge was to choose which Canadian province to head to. Modar had to leave his car in the Netherlands, and wasn’t able to bring all his assets from Ukraine into Canada.
Despite these hurdles, Modar and Mariia began to research more about their soon-to-be new home. They went on social media and official government websites until they heard about a charter flight program. The first flight, which the Al-Sharbajis ended up on, brought 328 Ukrainians to Winnipeg on May 23.
It was thanks to some posts on Facebook that the family got connected with some people in Carberry who were eager to help them and other refugees fleeing Ukraine.
Sheryl Neault, who found out about the refugees’ plight on social media, started by offering advice on platforms like Facebook to enquiring Ukrainian families. It seemed like everyone was heading to Toronto, and Neault wanted to let them know that other options were available.
“If they were to get into Manitoba, I thought maybe I could help them with their job search and housing.”
Eventually, Neault put together a Carberry-based committee dedicated to helping Ukrainian refugees settle in the community. She even invited a family to stay at her house until they found alternative arrangements.
As soon as Neault put out a request in the community for donations of household items to help the families get started, the community overwhelmed her with donations and offers of rental housing. A couple of women approached her wanting to make a financial donation, and they eventually banded together and formed the committee.
When the Al-Sharbaji family landed in Winnipeg, miraculously with their cat and dog in tow, Neault and her committee were there waiting for them.
“The welcome at the airport was shocking. It was amazing. We started crying,” Mariia said. “I had tears in my eyes. There were so many people, and everyone was telling us ‘welcome.’”
Amid the flowers, welcome packages and other shows of support, the family eventually made its way to a Best Western hotel, where volunteers helped them with supplies, even down to pet food and cat litter. The next day, the Ukrainian Canadian Congress connected the newly landed refugees with all the governmental departments they needed to access in the hotel, from signing up for health cards and social insurance numbers, to receiving medical exams and building resumes. There were even people on hand to consult with parents about getting their children into local schools.
For Modar, Mariia and the rest of their family, the compassion coming out of Carberry was totally unexpected. Even though all their needs were provided for in the hotel, Neault and other committee members drove back and forth from Winnipeg every day, even bringing the family adapter cables so they could charge their phones.
After two weeks in the hotel, the family was finally picked up by the committee and driven to their new home in the municipality of North Cypress-Langford on June 7. The committee had found them fully furnished apartments that were equipped with all of life’s necessities, from food to toiletries to decoration.
“They thought of everything. These people really are incredible,” Mariia said. “I don’t know how they did it.”
Now, the family is focused on finding employment for Modar, whose background is in marketing and front-end development.
Overall, the experience the family went through was nothing short of amazing, Modar said.
“We are grateful to Canada, and grateful to Manitoba for making everything easy for us. They literally facilitated everything for us to come and settle down as new, displaced people. We’re so grateful to Carberry as well. Everything is amazing here.”
Miranda Leybourne, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun