Until the war came, Karyna Pustomelnyk practised law in her hometown of Odessa, Ukraine.
Anatoly Makarenko ran a bicycle shop in Lviv, and his wife Oksana cared for patients as a cardiologist.
The three were among just over 50 new arrivals to Canada who visited Norfolk County on Tuesday on a bus tour organized by the county, Venture Norfolk and the Newcomer Centre of Peel.
The tour was designed to give new immigrants to the Greater Toronto Area, and particularly those fleeing the war in Ukraine, a look at Norfolk County as a potential landing spot.
Participants visited local businesses that are currently hiring, including Titan Trailers in Courtland, Toyotetsu’s auto parts plant in Simcoe and the Unilever ice cream factory in Simcoe. They also learned about local opportunities in the manufacturing, farming, restaurant and tourism sectors.
“We wanted to figure out something that we could do” to help Ukrainians seeking refuge in Canada, said Chris Garwood, Norfolk’s economic development co-ordinator.
“And at the same time, it’s assisting our businesses.”
Makarenko called the support his family has received since landing in Canada by way of Poland last month “amazing.”
“Everybody is willing to help and is very welcoming,” he told The Spectator, speaking through translator Tania Maksymenko, head of the Rural Employment Initiative at the Newcomer Centre of Peel.
The Makarenkos left Ukraine just before their twins, Markiian and Dzvenyslava, turned 18. To stay past that point would have seen Markiian conscripted into military service.
The twins celebrated their birthday in Toronto a few days ago.
“We think there is a bigger opportunity for our children in Canada, especially with their education,” Anatoly said.
All four family members are looking for jobs, but Markiian said employment in Toronto has thus far proven elusive. They came on the bus tour, he said, to learn more about the smaller towns around the GTA and ideally find work in Norfolk.
In the meantime, they check the news from Ukraine daily, seeing reports on Monday of shelling in the Lviv area.
“Being here, they feel much safer,” Maksymenko said.
Pustomelnyk’s eyes filled with tears as she described the agonizing choice to leave her family and make her way to Canada alone.
“Everything stopped on one day — February 24,” she said, referring to the day Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began and her family’s lives changed forever.
She and her parents soon lost their jobs, and they feared losing their freedom should the Russians be victorious.
Her family heard reports of atrocities committed by Russian soldiers against the citizens of nearby Mariupol, with women being particularly vulnerable. Terrified of what might happen when the Russians reached Odessa, Pustomelnyk’s mother urged her to get out.
Her father and younger brother were legally bound to stay and fight against the invading troops, and her mother chose to remain with them.
Pustomelnyk last caught sight of her family in the rear-view mirror of the car taking her across the border into Moldova.
It was, she said, like something out of a movie.
Now in Canada for about a month, the 23-year-old said this is the longest she has ever been apart from her family.
“I like Canada, but I very, very (much) miss my home and my family,” she said.
Pustomelnyk said she plans to establish herself in Canada and make enough money to bring her family over to join her should the war not end well.
That is why she came to Norfolk to visit businesses in need of workers, knowing that her legal degree does not transfer to Canada and she will have to change industries.
“I have to survive,” she said.
Oksana Fito of Port Dover marshalled a group of volunteers from Sacred Heart Ukrainian Catholic Church in Waterford to greet the newcomers in their own language and help with translation.
Fito said she was glad to help people from her homeland feel less disoriented as they find their footing in Canada, calling the bus tour a “great opportunity” for participants to network and learn about settlement resources they can access.
Staff from Fanshawe College’s career services department and the Joseph Brant Learning Centre in Brantford, which offers ESL classes to newcomers, were also on hand.
Garwood said several Ukrainians have already accepted jobs in Norfolk, with their new employers pledging to provide skills training and help them find places to live.
J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator