Ukrainian couple used kyiv parking lot as bomb shelter before fleeing to Canada

For a second night, Oleksandra Samorodova and Irene Ilchanka sat inside their small car parked in an underground parking lot in kyiv – a site that had become a makeshift bomb shelter since the Russian invasion – and set themselves an important goal once they escaped.

“That second night was a sleepless night and we were tired and we were talking and I said, OK, let’s get married when we get out of here,” Ilchanka said.

Those wedding plans are currently underway as the couple, along with Samorodova’s seven-year-old son Noah, their two cats and a dog settle into a new life in Toronto, more than 7,000 kilometers from the deadly violence in Ukraine.

With the help of friends in town, they were able to get an apartment in a house in the beach area where they can stay for free until September. Although they came to Canada with next to nothing, local donations provided them with enough food and clothing, as well as toys for Noah, who enrolled in a school down the street.

Seven-year-old Noah, who fled Ukraine with his mother and partner, is pictured in his bedroom in a donated apartment in Toronto on April 1. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Samorodova and Ilchanka are now trying to help other people in Ukraine navigate their way to safety. Both animal lovers, they are also trying to find a Canadian home for pets that have been abandoned in Ukraine by runaway residents.

A bag and the clothes on the back

On February 24, the couple were forced to flee their own apartment in downtown kyiv, waking up around 5:30 a.m. to the sound of explosions.

“We don’t know what to do because we can’t believe this is really happening,” Ilchanka said. “And then we realized…it started, the war started.”

The couple lived on the 25th floor of their building and feared for their safety. They gave themselves 35 minutes to quickly pack a bag, using half for pet food and documents, and with only the clothes on their backs they left the apartment.

They picked up Noah, who was with his father at the time, and headed to an underground downtown parking lot, where many other townspeople had moved to shelter from the bombardment.

The parking lot had electricity and toilets and Samorodova, Ilchanka, Noah and the animals were forced to sleep inside their Mini car. But the explosions they heard at night made them realize they weren’t safe and needed to leave the area.

Hundreds of people crowd into kyiv train station to evacuate the city. (Submitted by Oleksandra Samorodova and Irene Ilchanka)

When they stood out, they couldn’t believe how much the city had changed in just two days.

“Not because of the shelling, but because of the whole atmosphere,” Ilchanka said.

“It was downtown and it was empty,” added Samorodova.

They drove about half an hour, stayed with friends for a few days, but felt they had to head west and decided to take the evacuation train.

The scene at the station in central kyiv was “catastrophic”, Ilchanka said. “There were burned cars, and all these people with animals and their backpacks going to the station.

“I have never seen the station so crowded. There were people everywhere and everyone was trying to go in any direction.”

The train itself was overcrowded with no food or water available. They also had to turn off the lights so the train wouldn’t be seen from the sky, Ilchanka said.

Passengers from kyiv crammed into the train. (Submitted by Oleksandra Samorodova and Irene Ilchanka)

Flee to Canada

The trip took them 18 hours and arrived in Rakhiv, western Ukraine. From there, they crossed the Romanian border and decided that Canada would be their final destination. Noah was born there; Samorodova had lived in Toronto before and received her Canadian citizenship. Meanwhile, Ilchanka had a tourist visa allowing him to stay for six months.

“It was a rational decision,” Ilchanka said.

Samorodova was a radiologist in Ukraine, but also worked at a medical informatics company, a job she can continue in Toronto. Ilchanka used to work for an advertising agency but is currently looking for work and has applied for a work permit.

They want to eventually have their own apartment, but for now they are grateful for the support they have received.

“We were shocked. We were surprised. We didn’t even know how many kind people there are in this world,” Samorodova said.