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Ukrainian refugees embrace peace and quiet in Canada as war rages on

OTTAWA — Inna Fomina is keeping a watchful eye on her one-year-old son Adrian as he plays in peaceful contentment on a carpet at an improvised space in western Ottawa.

Less than two months after mother and son arrived in Canada after the war in Ukraine forced them to flee, she’s been savouring the peace and quiet of her new home. 

Fomina is visiting the café and drop-in centre, which was opened by the local Canadian Ukrainian community to help refugees like her.

“It’s another planet here,” she said with a smile.

“Everything is so big: houses, cars.”

Her story is one of horror and displacement, but also one of hope and resilience.

The young mother has moved around frequently in recent months. 

She’s originally from Kremenchuk in central Ukraine, on the banks of the Dnipro River. The city suffered heavy bombardment from Russian forces.

While she fled the bombs with her son, her husband remained behind and continues to work in the IT field. As a fighting-age man, he can’t leave.

Fomina never believed war was truly possible until the moment it began in  February, she told The Canadian Press. 

“My father joked about it,” she said. 

But one morning, at 6 a.m., she got the call from her mother-in-law: Kharkiv was under attack.

“I thought it would only last a few days,” she said. She was wrong.

Her parents’ village was partially destroyed. They fled. Fomina and her family briefly lived in an apartment with then two-month-old Adrian, but she ultimately decided to flee her bombed city and seek refuge in Canada. 

“We were going to have to start from zero one day,” she said.

Her journey began with a trip to western Ukraine, then a 32-hour bus ride from Lviv to Lyon, in France. 

The reason for that trip, she said, was to fulfill the complex criteria needed for admittance to Canada. That included submitting biometric data, which she said could not be accomplished from Ukraine or Poland.

It took her six months to get the proper paperwork before she was able to make the move to Canada at the beginning of October. 

Fomina and her son are living in a small apartment and receiving help from the network of Ukrainian Canadians who opened the café. She’s hoping for a job in the computer science field.

One recent day, the café was presenting a documentary on the Ukrainian resistance, in association with the Ukrainian Embassy in Ottawa. 

Sitting at the bar was Borys Syrskyj, a 69-year-old retired soldier. He wanted to enlist in Ukraine, but was refused because of his age. Now, he volunteers at the café. 

Some six million Ukrainians have fled to neighbouring Poland, according to Anton Struwe, another volunteer. Some chose to stay there, while many others have left, or planned to.

The groups helping the refugees in Canada have their hands full: the newcomers need food, housing, furniture, jobs, schools and more.

At the café, a doctor who went to Ukraine in the spring to help the wounded stops by to offer his services to the newcomers who need a consultation. A worker takes down his name for future reference.

“Every pair of hands can help,” Syrskyj says.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 21, 2022.

Patrice Bergeron, The Canadian Press