Valentina Gvozd stepped into the arrivals gate at the Edmonton International Airport clutching a small bouquet of yellow sunflowers, her two young sons at her side.
Gvozd and her children, and about 60 other Ukrainian nationals, were on a flight that arrived in Edmonton Monday night — refugees fleeing war as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine heads into its fifth week.
While accurate numbers are hard to gather from an active war zone, the war has killed more than 1,000 civilians and injured another 1,800, according to the United Nations this week.
More than 10 million Ukrainians — one-quarter of the country’s population — have been driven from their homes, including almost four million who have fled the country.
Gvozd and her sons Bogdan, 9, and Artem, 6, will be staying with her brother-in-law, Andrii Nabutovskyi, in Red Deer, Alta.
Speaking in Ukrainian, Gvozd said she felt gratitude and relief as she stepped off the plane, following a difficult journey from Ukraine.
“First impressions are that you are welcoming us so graciously. We are here for the very first time,” she said.
“What can I say? I am very grateful that you are accepting us. [As] Ukrainians, we thank you sincerely.”
Not long ago, Gvozd’s life in the central Ukrainian city of Cherkasy was quiet. She worked as an accountant. Her boys went to school.
Then the Russian military invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.
“They were just regular kids going to school every day like every ordinary Ukrainian family,” Nabutovskyi said of Gvozd’s sons.
“And on that horrible day, war started and they spent a lot of time in the basement because you never know when an artillery charge will come and might end your life right there.
“It’s hard, because you think the war is going to end in a couple of days … but it never did.”
‘Looking to a new beginning’
As sounds of nearby explosions grew louder, Gvozd made the decision to leave her home. She packed a few belongings into her car and drove her sons across the border into Poland, eventually finding her way to Warsaw.
“This is all that was collected on a minute’s notice. Just basic needs, you know,” Nabutovskyi said, pointing at a luggage cart packed with the family’s belongings.
“They left all their toys and all their stuff, all their life behind basically. And they are looking to a new beginning, at least until the war is ended.”
When they arrived in Edmonton Monday night, all the refugees were met by sponsor families — mostly relatives and friends living in Alberta and Saskatchewan. About 30 families are acting as hosts.
The Edmonton-based Canadian Polish Historical Society organized the aid mission in partnership with former Conservative MLA Thomas Lukaszuk and former Alberta premier Ed Stelmach.
The plane, a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, was donated by Polish Airlines LOT. Royal Dutch Shell donated 50 tonnes of jet fuel. Edmonton International Airport waived all its fees.
The plane will return to Poland Tuesday loaded with donations, including surgical equipment, diagnostic equipment, and first aid supplies.
Ivan Lypovyk is opening his Edmonton home to refugees, taking in three adults and two children.
He was expecting to take in 13 people Monday, but only one of the families made it onto the flight out of Warsaw.
Lypovyk said he couldn’t stop thinking about the people who were left behind, unable to get their passports and visa documents in time.
“It’s bittersweet,” he said. “I’m very happy for those who made it and I am waiting for the rest of them to come.”
Lypovyk said for him, taking in his friends that need help is “stressful, but manageable.”
He said he knows there is a lot to take care of right away, including arranging for social insurance numbers and Alberta health care cards.
He suspects meeting those immediate needs will be easier than the long-term challenges the refugees might face.
“To start living their own life, that is their goal now. The rest of the emotional stuff, I am pretty sure it will kick in later on,” he said.
“That’s how my friends and relatives who are still in Ukraine [are] right now. They are moving forward on adrenaline.”
‘Nobody prepared for the worst’
Lypovyk moved to Canada from Ukraine in 2008. He now runs a small business and will be employing three of his guests, including one couple who have two children.
He was eager to greet his guests and provide them some comfort after escaping the horror of a sudden and horrific war.
“Nobody expected this. Nobody prepared for the worst,” he said. “Nobody is living their lives to know that some day, they have to have a full plan in place, how you’re going to react to war.
“I’m just going to hug them. What can I do?”
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