In Ukraine, she left her home, her heart and her husband-turned-soldier. Here’s what she found in Canada
By Allan Woods Staff Reporter
Kateryna Liubchyk had a good home — a safe home — in Ukraine.
She attended school in Kharkiv, the second-largest city in the northeast of the country, with a boy named Pavlo. After attending school together, then studying at university, they went off together to work and travel the world aboard cruise ships.
After two years visiting ports on both sides of the Atlantic and in the Caribbean, they returned to their homeland, and their hometown.
In 2016, they married and purchased a newly built two-level apartment in the city. Their lives were taking shape. They picked the finishings and furnishings for their new home, decorated it with care and paid it off in full.
An angel-haired daughter named Valeriia soon joined them on their journey. And when the time came, Kateryna spent months searching for the perfect little bed, finally settling on one that was upholstered in soft, pink velour.
The bed arrived days before Valeriia’s third birthday, in early January 2022.
Less than two months later, the couple woke to the sounds of Russian missiles crashing into their city, on Feb. 24, 2022.
It was a moment that would upend their lives and those of millions of other Ukrainians. At the time, they could scarcely imagine how greatly.
Imagination was a luxury they did not have on that morning.
Pavlo arranged the car. Kateryna went to her daughter’s brand-new bed, woke the sleeping child, put warm clothes over her pyjamas, then a snowsuit over her clothes and hustled her from the apartment.
On the way out, she spotted a stuffed animal close to the door, a dog the girl had named “Lisa” possibly thinking it resembled a fox — “lisa” in the Russian language. It was the only toy that accompanied Valeriia on her odyssey.
Pavlo drove. Kateryna started making calls: to rental postings she found on online classified sites and to realtors.
“We knew that we were going in the opposite direction of Russia,” she explained. “That’s the only thing we knew.”
The Russian invasion forced them, like millions of other Ukrainian families, to make a life-saving and life-altering journey. One year later, and nearly 8,000 kilometres on, Kateryna’s is a journey and a story without an ending — though it cannot come soon enough for her, for her family, for her country.
10 million Ukrainian refugees
The conflict has destroyed buildings and infrastructure. It has caused an untold number of military and civilian deaths. It also sparked a humanitarian emergency, the shockwaves of which have been felt around the world.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates that 4.8 million Ukrainians have sought temporary protection in Europe, with 1.6 million taking refuge in neighbouring Poland alone.
As of January, the UN estimated another 5.35 million Ukrainians were internally displaced —forced to flee their homes for safety in other parts of the country.
Canada created an emergency program to grant Ukrainians temporary resident status and work permits for up to three years. It has approved more than 540,000 applications of the nearly 840,000 that have been received, according to government statistics.
Kateryna and her daughter Valeriia, now four, are just two of the more than 158,000 Ukrainians who have come to Canada over the past year.
But that transatlantic trip was still months away when they set off in a three-car convoy with friends out of Kharkiv while Ukrainian military trucks headed in the opposite direction.
Kateryna explained to Valeriia that they were going on a trip.
“I honestly said, ‘I don’t know where for now,’ because I really didn’t,” she said. “Then I said that our hometown is in danger, and we cannot stay there.”
They made it across the Dnipro River that first day, travelling 300 kilometres west along the highway. The only visible signs of mass panic were the long lines of cars looking to fill up at gas stations.
They stopped for the night in a small house near the city of Oleksandriya.
The second day, they made it to Vinnytsia, another 400 kilometres along the highway. They stayed there several nights before finding a larger place for themselves and their fleeing friends in Ivano-Frankivsk, an hour’s drive from the border with Poland.
In relative safety in western Ukraine, Kateryna turned her focus to getting her and Pavlo’s relatives out of Kharkiv. The older women were reluctant to leave behind their homes and their lives. Kateryna hassled them over the telephone. The sounds of shelling in the background fuelled her efforts. Finally, they agreed.
She found them four seats on a bus headed for the western city of Lviv. Two mothers, two grandmothers and two cats. She secured the spots on March 5, through a friend.
The next day, Pavlo received a telephone call, ordering him to report for military service.
Called to military duty, with no experience
Her husband had no military experience. He had been medically exempted even from the limited training that students were required to undergo at the university. Nevertheless, he was called to duty.
Kateryna was stunned.
Pavlo was sent for training. This provided a minimum of relief to his wife, who feared he would be simply handed a gun and pointed toward the front.
He became an ambulance driver and a paramedic.
To keep each other sane during their separation, they made a pact.
“Since the beginning we have this rule that he will text me every morning and every evening so I will know that the night was OK and also that the day was OK,” Kateryna said. “The hardest is when they don’t have connection, because that happens.”
In the army, Pavlo met a fellow soldier who offered the use of his family’s country house, allowing the four generations of women — and two cats — to live together under the same roof. But there was always that uncertainty of not knowing if they would have to move again.
“A few times, when we were in the western part of Ukraine, (Valeriia) asked me, “Mom, is this house safe here? She knew that our house (in Kharkiv) was not safe.”
Choosing Canada over U.K.
Mark Dawson watched the Russian bombs fall on Kharkiv from afar.
A Brampton native who was married to a Ukrainian and spent two years living in Kharkiv nearly a decade ago, Dawson followed the news of the invasion in horror from Canada, then sent messages to dozens of friends and acquaintances to make sure they were safe, and to offer his help.
Kateryna and Pavlo, a family friend, were among them. Canada quickly launched a program to take in fleeing Ukrainians. So did the United Kingdom. Kateryna was adamant that if she was going to leave her native country, alone with a young child, it needed to be for a country where people speak English, as she does.
Dawson found four apartments in and around Toronto and another in England. Kateryna settled on Canada for a few reasons.
Ottawa was offering Ukrainians temporary residency for up to three years rather than what she said was just two years in Britain.
“I was not sure — and this is the bad part of my thoughts — that in two years this war would be over,” she said. Even if it does finish, she figured, there will be years of work ahead demining, recovering and rebuilding.
And while she knew very little about Canada — that there were provinces rather than states, and that there was a French-speaking province called Quebec — she at least knew someone.
This was key.
“It’s mentally hard to understand, that if something happened to me, my daughter has no one to take care of her,” she said.
Coming to Canada meant moving again — this time to Poland, the closest fully functioning Canadian visa office. It meant paperwork, bureaucracy and an agonizing weeks-long wait.
She stayed with a Polish family for nearly two months. They offered not only a place to stay, but a shoulder to lean on. And their parents offered Kateryna and Valeriia a gift card to buy spring clothes.
Dawson kept in contact, offering encouragement, which she appreciated, and financial assistance, which she declined.
“I can say that of all the people in Ukraine, she was the most difficult one to help,” he said. “I kept saying, ‘I have this money and you need it,’ but she refused to take it.”
As the wait stretched in Poland, it became difficult to maintain her spirits.
“She was so depressed and despondent being stuck in Warsaw for so long waiting for Canada to approve her,” Dawson said. “I told her … ‘You’re not doing anything. You need to go to the zoo or something.’”
He offered her financial assistance again, and again she refused, until he insisted she spend the money on Valeriia.
“I said, ‘How old is Lera?’ … ‘When’s the last time I bought her a birthday present?’” recalled Dawson.
Not only had he never bought the girl a present. He had never before met Valeriia.
“ ‘This is Lera’s birthday present,’ ” he told Kateryna. “Finally she let me send (the money) for her.”
‘The only Ukrainian in Brampton’
Kateryna and Valeriia arrived in Toronto on May 31. They stayed for the first few weeks with the family of Dawson’s brother in Brampton. Valeriia, then three, found an immediate friend in Dawson’s niece, Thea, who was four.
Within a month, Kateryna had found an apartment close to a shopping centre, the bus station and a daycare — all of which she needed to be within walking distance. This allowed her to resume working for the Ukrainian IT company that had continued paying her salary throughout the chaos.
Valeriia cried every morning at the daycare drop-off, whether from the separation anxiety or the shock of having to negotiate yet another new world — this one in a new language.
The daycare staff transliterated the words they would need to usher their newest addition from her own language to English. At first, Kateryna also spoke to her daughter in English, trying to speed the process along at home.
“I was trying to teach her faster, but she was getting so mad at me. She would tell me, ‘Don’t talk English to me,’ and I understood,” she said. “Everything has changed so much for her, and if Mama starts speaking English, too, it’s scary for her. She wants her mom to at least be the same.”
Life had changed greatly for Kateryna, as well. It was a life filled with documents, applications and forms to be filled out. A life without her many friends, her family, her husband.
“When I had just come to Brampton, I felt like the only Ukrainian there,” she said. “Then, in the summer, me and my daughter were at the bus stop, and we met one more family from Ukraine. I could hear them talking and I was talking to my mom at the same time, and we were looking at each other, surprised.”
They, too, had fled Russian bombs and ended up in Brampton.
Pavlo was far away, but he was well, trying to protect his fellow soldiers, his country, but also his worried wife.
He could not reveal his exact location, for security reasons, but told Kateryna that he was in the area of Dnipropetrovsk, far from the heaviest action.
That wasn’t true.
When Kateryna needed Pavlo’s consent to get a new Ukrainian passport for their daughter, he went to a Ukrainian notary to give his legal consent.
“There is a stamp (on the document) and it says the city and I know it’s in the Donetsk region,” Kateryna said. “He’s not that far from the front line.”
In September, Pavlo featured in a video for Fathers of Ukraine, an initiative to highlight the human impact of the war.
The man with no military training just a few months earlier appeared wearing a camouflage tactical vest, cradling a rifle in his arms, and said: “We are in the east and trying to fight with the devil.”
But Pavlo fought back emotion when addressing his wife and daughter.
“My dear family, I would like to say that I fight for you. I fight for the freedom to be safe in Ukraine. I love you, my dears.”
‘Ukraine will win’
In December, Kateryna started a new job with a Canadian company. She needed the Canadian salary to pay her bills, which outstripped the wages she received from her Ukrainian employer.
Now, on a normal day, she wakes up to get Valeriia to daycare by the time it opens at 7:30 a.m. Then she rushes to the bus station that takes her west, towards the city.
It’s another 30-minute walk to the office — a commute of an hour and 40 minutes, door to door.
Sometimes, she takes an Uber, justifying it as a costly investment in her family’s well-being and peace of mind — and a temporary one at that.
Kateryna will sit for her driving test this week.
“In the future, when I get a car, it will be less difficult, but at least I have started working here,” she said. “I decided it will all be worth it in the end.”
Millions of Ukrainian lives have been broken by the war.
Some have been shattered irreparably.
Others, like those of Kateryna and Valeriia, are starting to take shape again, thanks to the many acts of kindness that they have encountered in their long and difficult journey.
But they won’t be fully formed and fully functional again until they are reunited with Pavlo.
“The only thing (Valeriia) is asking all the time is when her father will be with us,” Kateryna said.
“I tell her that he’s defending the country and as soon as the war is over — I’m trying to use the term ‘Ukraine wins’ instead of ‘the war is over’ — I’m telling her that he will come.”