Nine Months and Five Days

A challenging Ukrainian family relocation to Canada begins to safeguard their children from war and its consequences.

By Liubov Lavreniuk

Updated 05:23 pm EST, December 17, 2023

Published 01:06 pm EST, December 13, 2023

Photo Courtesy: Yuliya P.

On September 14, 2022, our plane landed at the Montréal airport. We were worn out and exhausted. The journey of my Ukrainian family relocation was long and arduous. Why did I and my children end up here, in a different country, on a different continent? Unfortunately, our family was not an exception, and a decision was made to take the children away from the war and its consequences.

It was challenging to take such a step because my husband, the father of my children, my mother, and other relatives, friends, and acquaintances remained in Ukraine. We did not understand what awaited us in Canada, whether we could adapt, learn a foreign language, find housing, or provide ourselves with at least a minimum of necessary things. There was complete uncertainty and confusion. We were all on the verge of despair.

A Ukrainian family relocation – photo courtesy Yuliya P.

Open Hearts, Unanswered Questions

For the first month and a half after our arrival, we lived with a Canadian family who hospitably welcomed us into their home. They let us into their lives without knowing anything about us, complete strangers… I often ask myself if I and my family could do the same, just open the door to people fleeing from war.

A Ukrainian family relocation – photo courtesy Yuliya P.

All members of the host family were very kind to us. They offered help and were interested in our life before the war and the current situation in Ukraine. They also wanted to know if their news channels were conveying accurate information. But the most frequent question was: “Why didn’t your husband come with you and the children? Why did you come, and he stayed in Ukraine?” I patiently explained that when the country is under martial law, men between the ages of 18 and 60 do not have the right to leave Ukraine. They could be mobilized into the ranks of the Armed Forces at any time. The Canadians were sincerely surprised and said they believed such a rule applied only to the military, and all civilians were free to go to safer places, including abroad.

Heartfelt Thanksgiving

One day, the host family invited us to their country house for a Thanksgiving celebration. Many of their relatives came, and they all cooked dinner together and chitchatted. Everything was fine until we sat down at the table. My younger daughter just started crying. To the question of what happened, she answered: “We are the same; on all holidays, our family gathered at the family table: grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters… and now we are here with you at the table, and there is none of them with us… I want to go home to Daddy…” This marked the first instance when my child couldn’t contain her emotions in front of others. 

A Ukrainian family relocation – photo courtesy Yuliya P.

Typically, she would express her feelings before bedtime. She often shed tears as she longed for her father, her beloved pet cat Bambik, her friends, her classmates, and the familiar routine of her everyday life. And she also asked: “Mom, will our apartment stay safe? It’s beautiful. I don’t want it to be destroyed.” “Mom, I want to play with friends, with such friends that we can speak other than English or French, but Ukrainian, so that they can understand me, and I understand them.” My child is 8 years old, and her life is full of fears instead of a carefree childhood.

Silent Struggles, Reluctant Acceptance

My eldest daughter was 14. She reacted to the situation differently or expressed herself more assertively when she did not like something. She would remain silent when something didn’t align with her expectations. I made an effort to engage her in conversation. She understood why we left: to find safety away from war, air raid alerts, and rocket missile attacks. In addition, to have an opportunity to attend school rather than be confined to a damp and cramped basement of Ukrainian schools… The opportunity to learn and improve knowledge of foreign languages. She understood the logical reasons behind our relocation. Yet, it took time for her to come to terms with this new reality in our lives.

A Ukrainian family relocation – photo courtesy Yuliya P.

It was also tricky for me… Canadians made genuine attempts to keep our spirits up, inviting us to walk around the city or closer to nature. We ventured out, but it was as if I couldn’t fully appreciate the beauty that surrounded us. But I didn’t want anything. I wanted to become invisible, untouched by anyone. I had a professional camera and a couple of lenses in the backpack. Yet, I lacked the strength to capture the world around us. People extended their assistance and offered various things, and while I had never been one to accept handouts, refusing their kindness seemed somehow inappropriate, leaving me with no choice but to learn and accept it.

Adaptation & Challenging Realities

Another woman we met invited us to French lessons at her home. She even ordered a children’s book with a Ukrainian translation to make it easier for us. I couldn’t quite grasp the information I heard, so I took notes for later. Living in someone else’s home also made me feel like we were intruding on their space, which was a bit uncomfortable. But we were not feeling well either. We tried to leave our room less and offered our help wherever we could. I found myself cooking often, and the Canadian family developed a fondness for Ukrainian cuisine, labeling it “healthy food.” Only over time did I realize how important all these people were in pulling us out and helping us focus on adapting to our new life. All of us required time to understand, accept, and adjust to the changes.

A Ukrainian family relocation – photo courtesy Yuliya P.

Keeping up in Montréal with two children was difficult. The city was teeming with immigrants from all over the world. Fierce competition was an ordinary thing, and there was a long waiting period for an appointment to register for school. This was followed by a lengthy process of school placement and paperwork. Finding an apartment also posed significant difficulties. In the province of Québec, the rental year runs from July 1 to June 30.

Small Town Refuge

Consequently, by October-November, housing offers were not suitable for us. They were either too expensive, in an inconvenient area, or not quite at the right quality. At one time, when I made a phone call to view an apartment, it turned out that the woman was from Odesa. We spoke about the life of Ukrainian mothers in Montréal, who found it too challenging and chose to return to Ukraine, even amidst the shelling. We chatted for an hour and forty minutes. She shared her experience in Canada for the first 6 to 7 months, and I listened… Even more unacceptably strange for me was that there were no washing machines in the apartments of most high-rise buildings. They were located in basements and were for public use.

A Ukrainian family relocation – photo courtesy Yuliya P.

After considering all the pros and cons, I decided to move to a small town called Saint-Pascal, 400 km from Montréal. Canadian volunteers helped me find housing, make cosmetic repairs, and furnish the apartment.

Life in a small town was a world apart from what we had experienced in the big city. Over there, everyone seemed to know each other. People were friendlier and calmer. It only took three days for the girls to start attending school. Their classmates welcomed them, giving them greeting cards, sharing photos, or writing their names on the back so that the girls could memorize them faster. Within two weeks, I began attending French classes. The teacher spoke English and French, which was challenging for me because I don’t speak either, so I had to look for videos on YouTube and spend a lot of time working at home. 

Confidence Growth, Community Bonds

First, children at school were allowed to use online translator apps. They tried communicating with those around her in English or through a voice translator. Of course, this could never replace full-fledged interaction, study, or games. My elder daughter felt more confident at school. Her English was reasonably good, and it was easier for her to communicate with classmates and teachers. We started making new acquaintances and friends.

A Ukrainian family relocation – photo courtesy Yuliya P.

Soon, the other kids began inviting the girls to birthday parties and outings, and they began to get used to their new environment. People offered me their help if I needed to go to a store or a nearby town. My daughter joined the school volleyball team, and she began to go to competitions. When the locals found out that I could also play, they also invited me to their volleyball practices, which took place every Monday in the nearby town of La Pocatière.

Emotional Ties

Then there was Christmas, New Year, and some vacations. The day before, we were invited to a meeting with a journalist who wanted to write an article in a local newspaper about how and when Christmas is celebrated in Ukraine. We had no experience communicating with journalists. But we agreed to the interview because we felt the need to talk about Ukraine and remind everyone that Ukraine needed help. Despite settling into our new life over three to four months, my mornings always started with the news in Ukraine and ended the same way, with my thoughts returning home. After the publication of the newspaper and the printed photo on the front page, we became local celebrities. Locals began to recognize us on the street and at stores. They greeted us and expressed words of support.

A Ukrainian family relocation – photo courtesy Yuliya P.

The three of us celebrated New Year’s holidays with our children according to Canadian time and online with our relatives who remained in Ukraine. My eldest daughter and I did everything to make the youngest believe in New Year’s miracles. So we decorated the Christmas tree and left out the stockings for St. Nicholas, even though we were in Canada. We wrote letters to Santa Claus; he also left a gift under the tree.

Resilience and Connection

Later, my two friends, Elodie and Pascal, whom I could safely call our children’s guardian angels, introduced me to a local coffee shop owner, who agreed to hire me for a part-time job even though I did not speak sufficient French. I worked as an assistant chef. It was interesting, brought a little extra income, and provided an opportunity to practice communication skills.

A Ukrainian family relocation – photo courtesy Yuliya P.

I remember there was one yard where people set up a flagpole from the very first days of the war and raised our country’s flag as a sign of support for Ukraine. They painted their house in blue and yellow. For us, it was a piece of something native and warm, something that warmed the soul.

Elodie and Pascal once invited us for a walk on snowshoes. Canada is a very picturesque country, covered with snow for six months of the year. I have never seen so much snow in my life. It was incredibly beautiful and fascinating.

Subconsciously, I couldn’t completely detach from the events at home. There was always increasing anxiety, a subconscious reaction to any loud sound. I was here, I was fine, but thousands of people there were wounded, ruined, dead… 

A Distant Grief

One night, I woke up, automatically picked up the phone, saw the news, and called my husband just to ask if he would go to work. He remained calm without even realizing that Kyiv had been hit. Like many others, he had grown accustomed to the reality of war.

A Ukrainian family relocation – photo courtesy Yuliya P.

In my native town, a helicopter crashed into a kindergarten, and tears overflowed for two days in a row. We realized that amongst all the dead, there was a mother and a daughter with a surname exactly like ours. The elder sister used to attend gymnastics lessons with my daughter. The headmaster of the kindergarten was in the hospital with multiple body burns. Her son studied with my younger daughter in the same class. They were people close to us, and there were also those we did not know. The feelings of brokenness, helplessness, despair, and a constant question of why this had happened weighed heavily on our minds.

Sacrifice & Gratitude

Then there was another interview. This time for the local TV station. It is difficult for me to be the center of attention. I was nervous, but again, I agreed. The children did not want to participate, and I did not insist. But I was convinced that this was also a small contribution to gain support for our country, once again to draw the attention of those who care about the war.

A Ukrainian family relocation – photo courtesy Yuliya P.

If young men and women are fighting in the trenches, and the entire territory of Ukraine suffers from shelling and attacks, then I should also endure and be in front of a camera for 30-40 minutes. After the main interview, the journalists talked to me for another 20 minutes. They, people who had never seen war, asked questions difficult for me to answer. This was the minimum I could do to support those who were on the front lines.

And so, our nine months in Canada passed by, filled with life, learning, and much more. I try to perceive everything as new opportunities and new experiences while I teach this to my children. Not everyone can withstand an unplanned move and adaptation to a foreign country. Not everyone will be able to roll back to the basics and start almost from scratch. But I managed, and so did my children. And I am infinitely grateful to everyone who was involved, with no exception.

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