Ukrainian refugees find help — and hope — in Newfoundland through Facebook group

·3 min read
Iryna Khmelevska, one of 166 Ukrainians who arrived in Newfoundland and Labrador this week, says her first impressions of her new home have been very positive. (Chris O'Neill-Yates/CBC - image credit)
Iryna Khmelevska, one of 166 Ukrainians who arrived in Newfoundland and Labrador this week, says her first impressions of her new home have been very positive. (Chris O'Neill-Yates/CBC - image credit)
Chris O'Neill-Yates/CBC
Chris O'Neill-Yates/CBC

When Iryna Khmelevska arrived in Newfoundland and Labrador on Monday, she wasn't sure whether St. John's would be her final destination.

The Ukrainian woman had narrowed her options to Newfoundland or Nova Scotia, but then she received a Facebook message from Marjorie Williams of St. John's — and her choice was clear.

"From the very first glance, from the first messages we exchanged, I understood that the person is extremely kind hearted. Extremely sincere, really desiring to help," Khmelevska said Thursday.

Both women are members of the Newfoundland and Labrador Help/Host for Ukrainians Facebook group, which offers housing, employment and assistance to those looking to escape the war in Ukraine. The page has over 7,800 members.

Williams offered up her basement apartment on the page, and connected with Khmelevska, who seemed like a good fit for the home.

"I contacted her immediately, and she replied immediately," Williams said.

"She declined the first flight because she wanted to have a job first, which really says a lot about her.… But I said to her 'No, no, no. Get on that plane. We will figure out the job later.' She got a seat on the plane, and here she is."

Chris O'Neill-Yates/CBC
Chris O'Neill-Yates/CBC

"It is absolutely by chance that Marjorie contacted me, and at the same time I learned there was going to be a charted flight from Poland organized by the government," Khmelevska added. "I checked and they said, 'Yes, there is still a seat on the plane,' and I decided simply to risk and try my chance. It's absolutely amazing because when I came here my choice was 100 per cent correct."

Khmelevska was in Turkey at the start of the war, and had to leave her family in Ukraine. Her mother and father are in the southeastern city of Zaporizhzhia, and she says the war's front line is getting closer every day.

"It's more than 76 days already the war is going on, and no one knows when it will end. I left behind my family. This is the most painful thing, because I don't know when I will see them again," she said.

But now that she is adjusting to life in Newfoundland, Khmelevska said she hopes she can share information with other Ukrainians who may be interested in coming to the province.

"Whenever I leave here, I'm going to be an ambassador to Newfoundland. Ukrainian people mainly go to big cities … because they're from big cities in Ukraine.… They don't know about Newfoundland too much," she said.

"The first impression, I fell in love in people, in nature, in what I have seen these first two days. So for now, it can be my home."

I think this is our new Come From Away story. - Michael Holden

Michael Holden, who created the Facebook group, said it's an amazing feeling to see how willing people are to help in any way they can.

"I think this is our new Come From Away story," he said, referring to the Broadway musical that tells the story of Newfoundlanders helping people who landed in Gander following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Chris O'Neill-Yates/CBC
Chris O'Neill-Yates/CBC

"Our hospitality is probably what we do best.… And that's what you see on this site happening."

Support continues to come from across the province, including at the Head Room Salon, where owner Trish Molloy is planning to offer a day of free haircuts and relaxation for Ukrainian refugees later this month.

"We want to take care of them … and welcome them and make them know that they're part of our community," she said.

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