The Knights of Columbus at Calgary’s St. Stephen Protomartyr Ukrainian Catholic Church pray for Ukraine, which was invaded by Russia two years ago. Photo from St. Stephen Protomartyr Ukrainian Catholic Church

Two years and counting for those who fled war

  • February 22, 2024

Two years ago, Iryna Chaikovska, her husband and three children moved out of their apartment into a house near Bucha and Irpin in the Kyiv Oblast of northern Ukraine.

Life was going well. The future was poised to be even brighter as both husband and wife had lucrative positions in the financial sector. 

Tragically, they would be denied their dream when Russian forces invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, the largest attack on a European country since the Second World War.

“We lived in the house for only one day and one night — the start of the war,” said Chaikovska, her voice straining with emotion. “When the war started we had a good basement, so we had three families together for one night.”

Soldiers started appearing near the Chaikovska abode. Friends urged them to flee for their lives. 

“We saw fire from our windows,” recalled Chaikovska. “It was the second day of the war that we left our home. We had only 10 minutes (to pack). I took the kids and our cat. The kids took some toys. Our oldest daughter did not want to go with us because she didn’t believe it. We had to push her into our car.”

Chaikovska spoke about her family escaping to Poland, then to Canada and establishing a new life in Calgary during an interview at St. Stephen Protomartyr Ukrainian Catholic Church. 

Upon getting into their vehicle, the Chaikovska clan just drove. They had no idea where they were going. The emotional shock of the situation was overwhelming. 

The family could not stay safely in one location for long. They needed to leave their homeland as soon as possible. Preparing for the worst, Chaikovska wrote names, contact and address details on the arms of each family member. If fighting separated the parents from their children, the scrawled information could offer at least a slim possibility of reunification.

Fortunately, Chaikovska’s husband secured permission to exit the country as he had a medical condition that ruled him out from serving in the Ukraine army. A contact informed them of a route through Europe that would take them to Poland, where they would remain for seven months. 

At the invitation and encouragement of an old friend and neighbour in Ukraine, the family decided to immigrate to Calgary. They arrived in October 2022. 

While the Chaikovskas managed to escape Ukraine in early March, Liliya Boychenko, her husband and daughter, who came to Winnipeg over a year ago, had to endure Kherson’s occupation for eight months before escaping.

“It is very scary physically and difficult mentally,” texted Boychenko in Ukrainian (converted to English via Google Translate). “Even now, when I think about it, I choke back tears. To see tanks, armoured personnel carriers, soldiers pointing machine gun barrels at you in your yesterday peaceful city, your mind simply refuses to believe it.”

To maximize their safety, the Boychenkos stayed home as much as possible. Venturing outside welcomed the possibility of Russian soldiers checking their phones for any Ukrainian content. They were, however, resolved to attend services at the Basilian monastery of St. Volodymyr the Great.

“There, we drew strength to survive those terrible days,” wrote Boychenko. “Fr. Ignatius Moskalyuk and Br. Pio Franishin became a family for us who nourished us, comforted us with kind words, comforted us and strengthened our faith.”

To escape, Boychenko knew leaving through Ukraine was not an option. The annexed Crimean Peninsula was the only viable route. When they arrived at the border, Boychenko’s husband and daughter had to endure eight and three hours of screening, respectively. Next came a six-day journey through Russia, Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania before arriving in Moldova, from where the family secured a flight to Winnipeg. 

Chaikovska and Boychenko are grateful for how they have been welcomed, especially to St. Stephen Protomartyr and by the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Winnipeg.

Chaikovska was emotional when talking about how the St. Stephen Protomatyr congregation helped secure lodging, furniture, food and enrollment for her two younger children at St. Michael School. Her husband even found work as a business analyst. The couple thought prospects would be limited to construction or cleaning jobs. She is meanwhile getting actively involved in supporting parish events and fundraisers. 

Fr. Michael Bombak, said the Chaikovskas are one of the 70 families in the congregation who fled the war. He said Anastasiia Gyrshanovych, the newcomers coordinator, and her team, continue to provide support.

Bombak said offering new parishioners fellowship is important. He said with a chuckle that “coffee after Mass is lively. Instead of coffee hour, it is coffee three hours.”

Boychenko wrote that her family received furniture, household appliances and job-hunting support. She now works as a caretaker for older Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate at their Winnipeg monastery.

Bishop Andriy Rabiy, the auxiliary bishop and the protosyncellus for the Winnipeg archeparchy, hailed the innate kind and welcoming nature of Canadians, even during fleeting airport interactions in Toronto.

“(Newcomers) would be approached by people in the airport who saw the Ukrainian flag on their backpack,” said Rabiy. “They would come up and talk to them and provide them with a gift card to buy a coffee. It may not be surprising to us (in Canada), but to them it is, especially those from eastern and central Ukraine. They are not used to the kindness..”

While Chaikovska and Boychenko’s families are adapting well to life in Canada, both said their shock at Russia invading Ukraine has persisted.

“For me, even now, I don’t understand this war,” said Chaikovska. “All my childhood we heard that we (and Russia) are sisters and brothers... Now our brother, our sister has killed our brother, our sister.”

Boychenko offered a similar view: “Although the war in Ukraine has been going on for more than two years now, I still cannot understand how it is possible for civilians, especially children, to be killed in the very centre of Europe, the civilized world.”

She keeps up with the news daily and “experience both joy for the victories, and anxiety and restlessness for my relatives who remained in Ukraine.” Her parents are still in occupied Kherson.

Though both are stunned the combat has lasted this long, Bombak said there are Ukrainian refugees who are not surprised.

“A number of them are becoming less surprised,” said Bombak. “We must remember that this began in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea. The people were on high alert. They already knew this was coming for a long time and that it was going for a long time. They seem less surprised by the length of this war than by people in North America.”

There are those determined to return to their Ukrainian home as soon as the war comes to a peaceful end, and there are others who like the lives they have established in Canada and seek to stay permanently.

“It is a very difficult question for us,” said Chaikovska. “For now, I try to build my life here because we don’t know when it will finish.”

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