If you need help click I Need Help.

Tanya and Andrii’s Story: We were no longer alone

Credit: Tanya Bila

Vinnytsia is a midsize, quaint town in central Ukraine, famous for its chocolate factory and its fountains and parks. Life is slower and quieter there, which is just the way we like it. My husband and I have lived in Vinnytsia all our lives. We met each other while attending Vinnytsia Pedagogical University, and got married at Vinnytsia city hall shortly after graduating. I taught English at a local school, while my husband taught at Vinnytsia National Technical University. 

Before the war started, we were enjoying our retirement: living in our cozy apartment, having friends over for dinner, taking long walks, and, occasionally, traveling. Although we might not have realized it back then, we took great comfort in our familiarity with our town, where we knew where to turn to for anything: which bakery sold the best Birthday cake, where to go for a great haircut, what park to choose for a quiet evening stroll… Vinnitsa was our home, a place where we were surrounded by people we knew for decades: our former students and colleagues, extended family, and friends. Even as Russians started building up their troops around the Ukrainian border, it was hard to imagine this town of ours would ever feel unsafe. 

Vinnytsia city center, December 2021

Yet at the very beginning of the war, Vinnytsia got bombarded with Russian missiles, and it soon became clear nowhere in Ukraine was safe anymore. People flooded to the Polish border to escape. We were on vacation when the war started, and with our return tickets to Ukraine canceled indefinitely, we decided to apply for the Canada Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel (CUAET) and eventually came to Vancouver with only two carry-on suitcases and a few changes of clothing. An old tree is hard to replant, they say, yet here we were, my husband and I: two “old trees” at sixty-six years old, thousands of kilometers away from our hometown, in a foreign country, looking to take root. 

Vancouver, April 2022

Moving is stressful under the best of circumstances. Moving to a new country in an emergency, unprepared, without your things, while your country is at war, well, it’s a whole different story. To every Canadian with a Ukrainian flag in their window: thank you. The first few days in Canada were disorienting, and seeing our flags all around us made us feel like we were not alone. 

Our plan upon arrival was to take care of all the necessary paperwork and find an apartment to rent as soon as possible. The latter proved not an easy task. The housing shortage in Vancouver and surrounding areas meant the apartments were in short supply, with multiple renters competing against each other for the rental contract. Without credit history and a job offer at hand, we soon realized we weren’t the most desirable candidates. Often, after placing an inquiry about a rental, we would get no response at all. 

The paperwork also took some time, and it was confusing at first to understand what needed to be done and in what order. One of the resources we turned to repeatedly for information was a website called “Help Ukraine Vancouver Island” (HUVI) (https://ukrainehelpvi.ca/) It had troves of relevant and frequently updated information and answered so many of our questions regarding the settlement process. After filling a form on the website, we were contacted by a volunteer, Karmen McNamara. Karmen was kind, reassuring, and very knowledgeable about CUAET and the challenges we were facing. She introduced us to the idea of staying with a Canadian family while we were getting settled, an option we haven’t considered until then. She had a family in mind she wanted us to get in touch with. This is how we got to meet Darlene and Henry, our wonderful Canadian host family. 

It would be delightful to meet Darlene and Henry under any circumstances: they are kind, erudite, well-traveled, highly moral and decent people anyone would be lucky to get to know. When they offered us to stay with them until August (when their regular tenant was moving back in), we were truly humbled, and grateful beyond words. What Darlene and Henry gave us was so much more than just a roof over our heads and a chance to catch our breath and find our footing. They showed us beautiful sights of Victoria and its neighborhoods, took us to the movies, concerts, theater performances. Darlene and Henry were of invaluable help when my husband got sick and was taken to the hospital. They became our support system, our local guides, our advisers, our friends, our family. They provided a connection to the community we were so missing, and introduced us to their neighbors and friends. We were no longer alone; just knowing they were there for us gave us a huge mental boost.

Welcome basket on our arrival, April 30 2022

From the delicious homemade welcome dinner at Henry and Darlene’s to the handmade “Welcome to Canada” quilts we were gifted upon arrival, we were made to feel welcome from the very first moment we arrived in Victoria. We have met so many wonderful, kind hearted people here. One of such people is Larry, and his wife, Hazel.  Larry came by a few days after our arrival to introduce himself and offer to drive us around: while Victoria is quite walkable and the public transport is available and works quite well, it is definitely easier to get around by car, especially with a broken foot. Darlene drove us to the hospital, to the countless appointments and grocery trips, and while she did it happily, we were mindful of taking up too much of her time, so we greatly appreciated Larry’s offer and gladly took him up on it. Larry and Hazel became our frequent companions giving us rides to appointments and taking us on sightseeing trips. They have become dear friends.

Darlene, Tanya, Andrii, Hazel and Larry June 2022

Even with so many people helping us, adjusting to life in a new country, especially under our circumstances, is not always easy. Every day we still miss our home terribly, and reading news about Russian atrocities in Ukraine, the bombings, the destruction, the killing of innocent civilians, weighs heavily on our hearts. Some days are definitely harder than others. On July 14, 2022, Russia attacked the civilian center of Vinnytsia with missiles, killing 25 and injuring more than 2 hundreds, including small children. We woke up that morning to calls and messages from friends and loved ones, reacting in despair and disbelief while declaring themselves safe. On days like this it is hard to focus on anything, hard to get on with your everyday life. On days like this we especially appreciate having Darlene and Henry’s and Larry and Hazel’s company, their invitations for a dinner, or a scenic drive, or an outdoor concert.  Even though it feels wrong sometimes to go out and try to enjoy life, we never regret it at the end of the day, and we really appreciate our friends encouraging us to go out.

Aftermath of Russian missile attack on Vinnytsia, July 2022 

Throughout our stay with the Ravensdales, Karmen stayed in touch, frequently checking in with us to see how we were adjusting, and to update us on what was happening within Ukrainian community on Vancouver Island. The Community has mobilized to become a de facto refugee hub, helping with paperwork, job search, and social integration, and organizing fundraisers and various social and community building events and outings. If not for my broken foot, I would have loved to join their runs and bicycle rides! While adjusting to new life, it is so important to expand one’s social network and connect with people in similar situations, and Help Ukraine Vancouver Island provides many opportunities to do so.

I’ve been long saying that this war has taught us how truly terrible and evil people can be, but also how brave, selfless, and kind. The way Henry and Darlene opened their home to us in a moment of need, all the help we got from Karmen, Larry and Hazel and HUVI, all this was truly inspiring, and we hope to pay it forward by helping others in need when we can. I assist in giving weekly English lessons to Ukrainian refugees in Canada, and I hope to be able to contribute more in the future. For those who are interested, HUVI in cooperation with other nonprofit organizations has many volunteering opportunities, and they are always looking for host families. 

What does the future hold for us? We are not sure, a lot will depend on how the war progresses back home. Thanks to Karmen and Darlene, who provided character references, we were able to find a kind person willing to rent her apartment to refugees until December (our new landlord will be in Toronto until then while we rent her place). We are hoping to return to Vinnytsia one day, but in the meantime, we will be looking for a longer-term rental starting in January. One thing is clear: all the support we have received from Henry and Darlene, and Karmen, and Larry and Hazel, and all kind-hearted Canadians we have met on our journey was invaluable, and it helped us to survive, and adapt, and persevere. For that we will forever be grateful. At least for a while, in a new place these old trees can continue to grow.

Thank you Canada!

Henry and Darlene Ravensdale, Tanya Bila and Andrii Bilyi July 2022
Scroll to Top