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The Strength to Start Again: A Displaced Ukrainian Mother’s Journey to Canada

Imagine having your home, job, family, community, and country taken from you and having to restart your entire life on the other side of the world, where you don’t even speak the language. Now imagine having to do it without your partner. With limited exceptions, men can’t leave Ukraine. Husbands and fathers must be left behind, breaking families apart to be rebuilt by the mothers who have escaped to Canada.

In this blog, we’re sharing the story of ‘N’, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. N escaped from the war in Ukraine to start her new life in Canada. She had a full life. She and her husband eagerly awaited the arrival of their first child; then, suddenly, the war took it all.  She found herself and her unborn child in Barrie, totally alone. No husband, family, or friends. Her future was uncertain.

This story is all too familiar for thousands of displaced Ukrainian families across our region.

The challenge continues for families already here, and more arrive almost daily. These displaced and divided families receive help from government and charitable organizations, but the agencies don’t cover everything. In response, a small group of Simcoe County residents have partnered with YMCA Immigrant Services to create the YMCA Displaced Ukrainian Emergency Needs Fund. This Fund will help fill the gaps in housing retention, eye care, medications, and more, as we work together to make a difference for displaced Ukrainians.

Read on to hear N’s story and learn how you can be a catalyst for hope for displaced Ukrainians like N.

On February 24, 2022, at 5 am, my husband and I were startled awake by a violent thunderstorm, but the brilliant flashes of bright white light we would expect were yellow flashes with an enduring red glow. Feelings of dread crept over us as we realized what we were experiencing were explosions followed by fires near Kyiv, Ukraine. The roar of fighter jet engines streaking overhead drove home the knowledge that our lives would be nothing like we had dreamed and planned.

Growing up, I had to be adaptable. My father served in the military since I was born in the Soviet Union in 1985, so we moved around a lot. Around my first birthday, we moved to Germany. When I turned six, we were off to Latvia. Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, at age seven, we returned to Ukraine. We became citizens soon after Ukraine declared its independence from Russia in 1991. My family, including my new sister, have lived in Kyiv since.

Our now stable home situation allowed me to focus on educational and professional goals and accomplishments. I began working in 2004 and achieved a master’s degree in economics with a logistics major at the Kyiv Economic Institute of Management in 2007. My vision for my future broadened when I felt a strong attraction to a handsome, intelligent man I had struck up a conversation with on the street one afternoon. It must have been fate because my normal reluctance to be so outgoing disappeared that day. In time we would be married.

The romance wasn’t so distracting that I didn’t advance my career from working at small companies initially to international corporations like Danone and Heinemann Duty-Free. Along with sharing our love and planning for renovations to our small apartment to accommodate the family we wanted, we shared career aspirations with my husband being a corporate lawyer and head of his department. Every day confirmed the strength of our bond that paved the way to a bright, abundant future.

Until that morning when explosions and fires destroyed our dreams. The flickering red light on the walls foreshadowed the hellish ruins of our future.

Suddenly men were rushing to enlist at military offices. Curfews governed routine activities like shopping. Lines were long as people rushed to secure the necessities needed to make it through what we imagined was coming. We couldn’t be sure we wouldn’t face the enemy at any time, as Russian forces had been seen in parts of Kyiv. Bomb shelters were scarce, so we had to try to sleep in basements despite the fear the sound of jets flying over brought. Were they ours or theirs? And were we in their sites?

Having grown up in military families, we both felt a duty to protect our homeland, so my husband enlisted. I felt compelled to enlist as well, but I learned I was pregnant, which precluded doing so. Despite the choices of caring for the life within me or protecting my country being out of my control, choosing between having my love with me for the birth of our child or defending against the invaders was torturous. I learned there was no limit to my tears.

I only had two hours to decide to leave Kyiv for a safer location on the advice of my parents and husband. I would take a train to Dnipro, 528 km to the southeast. The Central Kyiv railway station was open, but it was engulfed in foreboding darkness as trains and stations were blacked out at sunset. Passengers seemed to carry the weight of the darkness with them, fearing the light of a flashlight or cell phone would reveal our locations as trains quietly slipped in and out of the station. The moods of the riders matched the dark surroundings.

It took just a couple of days until I realized Dnipro wouldn’t be a safe haven as it was actually closer to the active front line of the war, so my husband arranged for me to escape to an old friend’s home in the Czech Republic. Throngs of refugees choked the border, making it a 14-hour ordeal to cross. About 500 hungry, exhausted, and cold women and children cried… some even fainted from the stress… as they waited in a field for permission to cross. It was just the beginning for me, though. What followed was a 6-hour bus trip from the border to Warsaw, then an 8-hour train trip to Prague with only my backpack and the floor for me as there were no seats. When I finally arrived, a week filled with fear, discomfort, and uncertainty had passed.

Though I was safe, I was faced with a one-bedroom apartment housing 11 people. I didn’t know what I would do next, where I would have our baby and how I would live. Ukrainian refugees filled jobs and accommodations in this city, and I didn’t speak Czech, which narrowed my prospects even more.

It was about then that I heard about a special Canadian program called CUAET (Canada – Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel). It gave me the first glimmer of hope I’d had recently, as I had dreamed of going to Canada since learning about it in my grade 5 geography class. I had tried everything to make that dream a reality… student exchanges, working, or just moving there when I was 16… but hadn’t succeeded. Now, despite my limited finances, work experience and education, the disaster that was tearing my life apart was also working together toward the realization of my long-held dream… going to Canada. It was a small consolation given what I was enduring, but that small glimmer helped me cope.

My pessimism that my glimmer would never become reality suddenly vanished when, on my birthday, a letter arrived that said I was approved to go to Canada! I had never travelled abroad, and I only had a month to learn how to book my flights with a connection in Germany onwards to Canada. The task of planning for my future was a much-needed respite preventing me from dwelling on thoughts of everything I was leaving behind. My entire life would have to fit in one suitcase for the journey that would take me to the other side of the world and to the life I would have to build myself. As I looked out at the clouds that the plane soared over, my mind was crowded with regrets, fear and anticipation.

My next turn of fortune landed me in Toronto when a Ukrainian woman invited me to live in her home while I got on my feet. It was May 2022, and though it was tiring getting around without a car in the southern Ontario summer heat, I had a long “to-do” list that kept me occupied with paperwork, English classes, seeing a doctor for my pregnancy, looking for a job, attending job fairs… but I also managed to get acquainted with my new location with visits to the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto Island, Niagara Falls during Canada Day, Oakville and Windsor.

As fate would have it, I landed a job babysitting a child at the Ukrainian National Federation of Canada’s “Camp Sokil” in Oro-Medonte. On my way north, my bus passed through Barrie, and I found the small city very appealing. My glimmer just kept growing when I received an offer to live there at IOOF in an apartment attached to a senior’s facility near the heart of Barrie.

My baby couldn’t wait to join me in the future that was shaping up for us, so she came into the world a month early. My life continued to be yet another blend of good and bad, though. This time, the bad came in the form of COVID-19, which made my daughter’s arrival an incredibly difficult time that I vaguely remember. But now I had my new Canadian and Ukrainian friends and RVH staff to help me through it.

My new world fell in around me and obscured my glimmer when I learned during my daughter’s third month that her father and my love, was missing in Bakhmut, which remains in enemy hands to this day. I lost my breast milk when thoughts of my total inability to help my husband or know his fate clouded my mind. Also, I hadn’t seen my parents, who’d waited nine months for their Visa to come to Canada to meet their grandchild. Their military background will keep them living in the Ukraine to fight for their country if called, though. My family is further fractured, with my sister living and studying in Germany.

I was just going through the motions of daily life until another act of kindness broke through the clouds. A woman I didn’t know offered to cover the cost of baby formula for almost a year. That act of kindness helped get me going again. I took every step possible, including contacting organizations like the Red Cross to find my husband. I worked to enhance my English skills. I got my G1 driving license and plan to get my G2 shortly. I found daycare for my daughter. I’m preparing for my first career job in Canada by working with the “Job Finding Club for Immigrants.” That’s important because I never want to be a dependent migrant. I want to earn my stolen life back. I want to be a productive, contributing member of my new community.

My beliefs push me forward. I believe Ukraine will win the war. I believe I will see my parents and sister again. I believe I will be united with my husband again, and he will meet his daughter. My most important belief is that I can build a good future for my Canadian girl in our new country where kindness, opportunity and democracy thrive.

People restarting their lives after being displaced by war face extreme physical and psychological challenges nearly impossible to overcome without the warm welcome and willingness to help of the Canadian government, charitable organizations, and wonderful people. Roughly 70% of displaced Ukrainians are mothers with their children whose husbands aren’t allowed to leave the country, but we have the strength to start again… with your help. Please support the Displaced Ukrainian Emergency Needs Fund through YMCA Immigrant Services.

Together, we can provide safety for displaced Ukrainians, empowering them to overcome challenges and build a brighter future for themselves and their families.

Join us in supporting the YMCA Displaced Ukrainian Emergency Needs Fund to provide Ukrainians with more than just the basics. Be a catalyst for caring by sharing this blog post and donating at (select “Displaced Ukrainians – Immigrant Services” under designation when making your donation).

Your donations help bridge the gap that government aid can’t cover, ensuring essentials like housing, medical care, and food are taken care of. By supporting this fund, you have the opportunity to make a direct and meaningful impact on the lives of Ukrainians in Canada. Every contribution helps provide essential assistance to those who have been forced to flee their homes due to violence and conflict. Together, we can show solidarity with displaced populations and demonstrate the compassion and generosity of the Canadian community.

To learn more about the YMCA Displaced Ukrainian Emergency Needs Fund, contact

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