Ukrainians fleeing Russian invasion arrive in Edmonton on aid flight

Valentina Gvozd walked through the arrivals gate at Edmonton International Airport holding a small bouquet of yellow sunflowers, her two young sons by her side.

Gvozd and his children, along with around 60 other Ukrainian nationals, were on a flight that arrived in Edmonton on Monday evening – refugees fleeing war as the Russian invasion of Ukraine enters its fifth week.

Although precise numbers are hard to come by in an active war zone, the war has killed more than 1,000 civilians and injured another 1,800, according to the United Nations this week.

More than 10 million Ukrainians – a quarter of the country’s population – have been driven from their homes, including nearly four million who have fled the country.

Gvozd and his sons Bogdan, 9, and Artem, 6, will stay with his brother-in-law, Andrii Nabutovskyi, in Red Deer, Alta.

Speaking in Ukrainian, Gvozd said she felt gratitude and relief as she stepped off the plane after a difficult trip from Ukraine.

“First impressions are that you are welcoming us so graciously. We are here for the very first time,” she said.

“What can I say? I’m very grateful that you accept us. [As] Ukrainians, we sincerely thank you.”

Not so long ago, life in Gvozd in the central Ukrainian city of Cherkasy was calm. She worked as an accountant. Her boys went to school.

Then the Russian army invaded Ukraine on February 24.

“They were just ordinary children who went to school every day, like any ordinary Ukrainian family,” Nabutovskyi said of Gvozd’s sons.

“And on that horrible day the war started and they spent a lot of time in the basement because you never know when an artillery charge will come and might end your life there.

“It’s difficult, because you think the war will end in a few days… but it never happened.”

“Wishing for a new beginning”

As the sounds of nearby explosions grew louder, Gvozd made the decision to leave his home. She packed some belongings in her car and drove her sons across the Polish border, eventually making their way to Warsaw.

“That’s all collected at the minute. Just the basics, you know,” Nabutovskyi said, pointing to a luggage cart full of the family’s belongings.

“They’ve left all their toys and all their stuff, their whole lives behind. And they’re looking at a fresh start, at least until the war is over.”

A worker watches as an excavator clears the rubble of a government building hit by Russian rockets in Mykolaiv March 29, 2022. More than 10 million Ukrainians – a quarter of the country’s population – have been driven from their homes. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

When they arrived in Edmonton on Monday evening, all of the refugees were greeted by sponsor families – mostly relatives and friends living in Alberta and Saskatchewan. About thirty families act as hosts.

The Edmonton-based Canadian Polish Historical Society organized the aid mission in partnership with former Conservative MP Thomas Lukaszuk and former Alberta premier Ed Stelmach.

The aircraft, a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, was donated by Polish Airlines LOT. Royal Dutch Shell donated 50 tonnes of jet fuel. Edmonton International Airport has waived all charges.

The plane will return to Poland on Tuesday loaded with donations including surgical equipment, diagnostic equipment and first aid supplies.

Ivan Lypovyk opens his Edmonton home to refugees, welcoming three adults and two children.

He expected to accommodate 13 people on Monday, but only one of the families took the flight from Warsaw.

Lypovyk said he couldn’t help but think of the people who were left behind, unable to get their passports and visa documents in time.

“It’s bittersweet,” he said. “I am very happy for those who have succeeded and I am waiting for the others to arrive.”

Lypovyk said that for him, welcoming his friends who need help is “stressful, but manageable”.

Ivan Lypovyk opens his Edmonton home to Ukrainian nationals, welcoming three adults and two children. It expects to accommodate a total of 13 people. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

He said he knew there was a lot to do right away, including organizing social insurance numbers and Alberta Medicare cards.

He suspects meeting those immediate needs will be easier than the long-term challenges refugees may face.

“To start living their own life, that’s their goal now. The rest of the emotion, I’m pretty sure, will come later,” he said.

“This is how my friends and relatives who are still in Ukraine [are] at present. They move on adrenaline.”

“No one prepared for the worst”

Lypovyk moved to Canada from Ukraine in 2008. He now runs a small business and will employ three of his guests, including a couple who have two children.

He was eager to greet his guests and bring them some comfort after escaping the horror of a sudden and horrible war.

“Nobody expected it. Nobody prepared for the worst,” he said. “No one lives their life to know that one day they will have to have a complete plan in place, how you are going to react to war.

“I’m just going to hug them. What can I do ?

Refugees flock to Polish border after Russian airstrikes on Lviv

The Polish border town of Medyka has seen a recent influx of refugees fleeing Russian airstrikes this weekend around Lviv in western Ukraine. 1:54