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Ukrainians find their feet in Thunder Bay, Ontario as Russian invasion nears 4th month

Oleksandr Ukhanov’s life is very different from what it was six months ago.

The Ukrainian man finds himself in Canada, building a new life in Thunder Bay, Ontario, while his wife and children remain abroad as his home country comes under siege.

Ukhanov is from Ternopil, a city of about 200,000 people in western Ukraine, but was working in Israel when the Russian invasion of his country began earlier this year.

Approaching its fourth month, the war has displaced millions of people, devastated Ukrainian cities, caused a humanitarian crisis and fueled insecurity around the world. According to Ottawa, some 43,000 people from Ukraine have arrived by air and nearly 8,400 by land in recent months, under special Canadian government programs.

Although Ukhanov is now safe in Canada, he has friends who remain in Mariupol and Kyiv – towns that were hard hit by the Russian offensive – and knows people in Kyiv who died defending the capital against Russian forces.

“I’m worried about it. It’s my country. I was born there. My childhood was there.

“My best friends stayed there. It’s terrible.”

‘I had something to do’

As Russian troops crossed the Ukrainian border, Thunder Bay resident David Walsh followed news reports.

The scenes of destruction and Ukrainians leaving their country in search of safety have remained faithful to him.

“I thought I had to do something and do whatever I could to help these people,” Walsh said.

Walsh contacted the Thunder Bay Multicultural Association to express his interest and availability to open his home.

During this time, Ukhanov began exploring avenues to find a place where he could move with his family, and messaged a number of settlement agencies. The first response he received came from the Thunder Bay Multicultural Association.

A few months later, Walsh’s phone rang with a call telling him that someone – Ukhanov – was on his way to Thunder Bay.

“It was a history lesson”

This first day in Northwestern Ontario for Ukhanov in mid-May included a trip to one of the region’s most scenic spots, Kakabeka Falls. In the days that followed, Walsh helped Ukhanov prepare for his new life in Canada, including getting a social insurance number, getting medicine, and finding work.

“I wasn’t used to having someone living with me, so it was a bit different. What I found was just having conversations with Oleksandr and learning the story of his world and its culture – it amazed me,” Walsh said.

“I tell everyone this has been a history lesson, a live history lesson for me, learning what another part of the world is really like.”

LISTEN | Meet Oleksandr Ukhanov and his host from Thunder Bay, David Walsh:

Superior Morning9:04David Walsh/Oleksandr Ukhanov: Ukrainian hosts

A small but growing number of Ukrainians are settling in Northwestern Ontario, hoping to build a new life there. Meet one of them and his host from Thunder Bay.

But Walsh said it hasn’t been without its difficulties.

“I struggle to understand part of the language. There are a lot of different words that mean a lot of different things in Ukrainian, and the pronunciation of a lot of words is very unique,” he said. “But we’re fine. I really appreciate the time we got to spend together and I’m having a blast.”

A multicultural association supports refugees

Cathy Woodbeck, executive director of the Thunder Bay Multicultural Association, said it was difficult to quantify the number of Ukrainian refugees who made it to the city. The first to arrive were those who already had family living in the area or who were outside Ukraine when the war broke out.

She said while the multicultural association provides direct support to some of the newcomers, others are sponsored by individuals and arrive on their own.

Firefighters work at the site of a fire after a Russian bombardment in Mykolaiv, Ukraine on Saturday. The Russian invasion is approaching its fourth month. (George Ivanchenko/Associated Press)

Woodbeck expects the organization to be able to work with up to 20 newly arrived Ukrainian families over the summer.

“We have received every form of assistance you can really imagine. People are really interested in helping, and are really touched by what is happening in Ukraine and want to help those who are getting there in any way they can.

“It’s really overwhelming.”

Woodbeck said the newcomers found internships in a number of different fields, including construction, hospitality and services, and one person used their skills to get a job at a local shipyard.

“Very happy” to be in Thunder Bay

Ukhanov has two jobs – one in construction and one at Sweet G’s Family Restaurant on Dawson Road.

“I’m very happy to stay here in Thunder Bay,” he said. “[People] helped me so much. I really appreciate Dave and his family.”

Ukrainians find their feet in Thunder Bay, Ontario as Russian invasion nears 4th month
Sweet G’s Family restaurant owner Gord Moir, left, says he hired Ukhanov, center, after being introduced by Walsh, who is a regular at the restaurant. (Amy Hadley/CBC)

Sweet G owner Gord Moir said Ukhanov helped bring Ukrainian recipes – including solyanka and borscht soups – into the kitchen.

“It’s going extremely well. I was surprised by his command of the English language. He seems to understand everything very well,” Moir said.

“The rest of the staff have embraced him and they really enjoy having him around. He’s a great person to work with. It’s been a very positive experience.”

Ukhanov said his wife and two children are currently in Italy and he hopes they will join him in Canada soon.

“I just want to work, earn money and give my children a good education,” he said. “For me, it’s family first.”