The harrowing journey to Ukraine and back

How this Ukrainian Canadian helped her parents flee their war-torn home

“I felt like I had been thrown into cold water,” said Maryna Skobal, a talented recruiter on our team who immigrated from Ukraine to Canada in 2015. “I sat on the floor for 30 minutes after that phone call and was in shock for days.”

On February 23 at 10:30 p.m., her mother called from her home in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she was sheltering with a young tenant and two family friends on makeshift beds that she had arranged on the mud floor of the root cellar. “Maryna, it has all started,” her mother said.

“None of us believed it could happen,” says Maryna, referring to the invasion of Ukraine by neighbouring Russia.

But as days passed and the news became more alarming—a Russian plane crashed three minutes from her parents’ home—Maryna started thinking about how she could bring her parents to safety in Canada. It would mean taking a trip to a war zone.

In only five weeks, more than four million Ukrainians have fled the country, most headed to neighbouring nations like Poland. Some will head to countries like Canada, which is welcoming an unlimited number of Ukrainians who meet all visa requirements to live, work or study here for up to three years.

With Maryna’s help, Altis Recruitment has put together a series of resources to help these Ukrainian newcomers find work when they arrive in Canada.

Maryna’s journey through a war zone

In Canada, we spoke with Maryna about her journey there and back and the efforts she and others in the Ukrainian-Canadian community have made to send humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

Q: What happened after that initial phone call from your mother?

A: I was numb. Initially, it didn’t seem real. I was going to turn 30 in March and had already bought plane tickets for my parents to fly to Ottawa on March 1 for my birthday. At first, I thought they might still be able to make the trip, but quickly realized it was impossible.

The first thing I had to do was make sure both my parents were safe and had food and medication. I couldn’t locate my father, who was on the road at the time, driving to his home province about 300 kilometres from Kyiv. I tried every way of finding him—calling friends, family and my in-laws, messaging him on Facebook—anything I could do. Finally, I learned he was okay, but had been at a highway rest stop so close to where one of the first bombs fell, the ground shook beneath him. Getting back home wasn’t easy for him because thousands of people were already fleeing Kyiv by then, but eventually, he made it.

Q: So, finally, your parents were together in their home. What’s next?

A: I tried to stay in touch with them every day, but it was difficult as they would creep upstairs from the cellar only when the sirens stopped, so the cell signal was quite spotty. I felt helpless waiting, so I decided to collaborate with close members of the Ukrainian community here in Ottawa to collect essential items that people in Ukraine needed and ship it there, hoping that at least something would get to them.

Q: How did your donations centres work?

A: We received so much support from the community, including my colleagues at Altis! We collected hundreds of items, everything from warm clothing, basic medical supplies and hygiene products to non-perishable food, safety equipment and, most heartbreaking of all, toys. We also collected monetary donations, which enabled us to ship everything to a receiver in Poland near the Ukrainian border. In total, we collected roughly $4000 and over 200 of boxes of supplies through five drop-off locations across the NCR, including my house, and made 1-3 shipments per week until we sent it all. Gathering all this together let me focus on something other than the news and feel like I was doing something useful.

Q: What was the news from your parents during that first week?

A: My parents weren’t giving me the full story because they didn’t want me to worry, but it was obvious what they were going through.

Together with their tenant and two friends, they stayed in that cellar for 10 days, and everyone kept thinking the fighting was going to end any day. There was still water and electricity, so they could use the bathroom upstairs, but as soon as the sirens went off, they had to run back down. Whenever I managed to talk to my mom, she’d tell me she was “listening to the air” for the sounds of shooting, which was heartbreaking to hear.

We communicated through a group chat on [social media app] Viber, exchanging info with 39 family members located both in Ukraine and abroad. And because we were in different time zones, we were able to monitor the news around the clock and kept my parents informed, telling them when it seemed safe to come upstairs.

Q: It sounds like you had a global network of people rallying to help out. Is that normal?

A: One thing I’ll say about Ukrainians: we stick together, both when having fun and grieving. So many people gave me support—including my own team members here at Altis.

I communicated with former classmates, colleagues and friends back in Ukraine, people I hadn’t heard from in as many as 15 years, who were still in Kyiv and reached out to ask if my parents needed help. It was thanks to one of these contacts that I was able to arrange the delivery of medication to my parents in their basement all the way from my home in Ottawa because he found a pharmacy that was still open and had supplies.

Q: When did your parents decide it was time to leave?

A: My parents really wanted to stay and protect their house. They didn’t want to believe how serious the situation was getting, but after much pleading, they agreed to leave. The question was, how? My dad in particular didn’t want to leave the country without their grandkids, so I had to find a way to get them all out.

Driving through the city was very dangerous because there was a strict curfew of 8:00 p.m. and armed checkpoints everywhere, but finally, they managed to get 10 people (including neighbours, friends and family members) and their dog Kai into one car and drove to join other family members at a cousin’s house, arriving just under the wire at 7:58 p.m.!

Then, the next morning, 13 people and three dogs headed out in a convoy of three cars toward the Polish border. Those of us outside of Ukraine scrambled to try to find the safest routes with the least traffic and the highest chance of finding gas, which was sold out everywhere. It was very dangerous, as there are tanks everywhere outside the city—Russian and Ukrainian—and reports of criminals robbing drivers at gunpoint and even killing them.

We were glued to the media and talked to anyone we knew who had made it out, so we could help them find places to sleep and navigate the roads. Still, it still took my dad and the other two drivers 13 hours to drive only 90 kilometres!

Q: It sounds like you managed to help them from Ottawa, but still ended up going to Poland yourself?

A: While they were on that scary drive, I decided to fly to Poland with my niece’s husband to help them through whichever border they ended up at—Slovakia, Romania, Poland. When we landed, we kept monitoring their progress, sending navigation tips and money through e-transfers, and talking to them whenever they had a signal. I tried to motivate them, even while bombs were literally falling behind them as they drove.

Everything kept changing, but we looked for information on the documents they’d need to cross the border, the crossings with the least traffic, the places where they could still find medication, that sort of thing. We finally directed them to one crossing on the Polish border only to learn the line was 40 hours long, so we directed them three hours away where the line of cars stretched five kilometres. Half the group decided to cross on foot, which was faster than driving, but still took eight hours. My parents and other family members stayed in that long line of cars.

Q: Everyone must have been very tired. What happened when they finally crossed?

A: Madness doesn’t begin to describe the situation at the border. People were so desperate to cross, that they were physically fighting each other, cutting in line and panicking. In the end, it took my parents 21 hours to cross the border by car, and they were so tired by the time they crossed, they were falling asleep in mid-sentence. When I finally saw them, I broke down, kissed them all over their faces, and everybody cried and hugged each other. They all looked terrible—like they’d aged 15 years—and everyone was in shock after spending those four days on the road living through that nightmare. But it was such a relief to see them.

Q: So, you and your parents then flew to Canada?

A: Yes, and the dog Kai came, too! We’re all in my house in Ottawa now. My parents are still in shock, thinking about the lives they left behind, their house and all their things, and not knowing if they’ll ever see any of it again. My mom even said, “Maryna, I’m so sorry, I left your birthday present in Kyiv!” I’m just happy they’re alive.

Q: So, what’s next for you and your parents?

A: I try to distract my parents with cleaning, cooking and renovations, but they’re still very upset and tired, especially my mom. For now, they’re still not thinking of staying here permanently. They want to return to their house and help rebuild the country if they can, so we’ll see.

For me, the experience changed the way I will live going forward. I think there’s a part of every Ukrainian that will never recover from this, but I’ve learned some positive things from it. For example, I won’t leave anything to tomorrow that I can do today—time is so precious. I’ll always strive for truth and honesty and will speak my mind openly. I know not to give false hope and yet also to be kind to those who need help. And I think I’ve learned to believe in myself more and not give up on my goals. I’ve learned I can accomplish so much if I set my mind to it!

How can you support Ukraine?

There are many ways to show support for Ukraine and those impacted by the conflict, including Ukrainian newcomers to Canada. Here are some ways to help:

Consider hiring Ukrainian newcomers

The Canadian government is welcoming unlimited numbers of Ukrainians to stay in Canada for up to three years (provided they meet certain immigration criteria). Many of those fleeing Ukraine will want to work. If you’re an employer, consider registering on the Government of Canada’s job site.

Consider donating clothing and essential supplies to Ukrainian newcomers

Many newcomers to Canada will arrive with very little, if any, clothing, personal hygiene products and other essential supplies. There are multiple organizations in the National Capital Region, including Maryna’s group, that are collecting items for Ukrainian newcomers. To inquire about donating items to Maryna’s group, please send an email to Anastasiia: perevalaa@icloud.com

Consider donating funds to charities supporting Ukraine

Many organizations around the world are accepting monetary donations to help those impacted by the war in Ukraine. Consider making a donation to your preferred charitable organization, whether based in Canada or Ukraine.

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