When this teacher fled to Toronto from Ukraine, she had to leave her husband behind


“We knew we might not see each other again for years”: When this teacher fled to Toronto from Ukraine, she had to leave her husband behind

The Voronka family led a peaceful life in Chernivtsi, Ukraine. Halyna, 41, ran her own school; her 45-year-old husband Yuri was park manager; and their two sons, 15-year-old Bohdan and 10-year-old Yevhen, took up cycling and karate. But when the war began, Halyna made the heartbreaking decision to flee to Toronto with the boys, leaving both her home and her husband behind.

– As Ali Amad was told

“I grew up in Chernivtsi, a city in south-west Ukraine. I’ve always loved languages, especially English, so I studied linguistics at a local primary school. After graduating in 1998, I became an English teacher and later married Yuri, who works as a park manager.

“In 2006, my best friend from school, Zhanna, moved to Canada and asked me to come with her. It was tempting. I had always heard wonderful things about Canada’s beautiful landscapes and diverse and hospitable people, and I had family in Winnipeg and Edmonton. It was exciting to fantasize about starting a new life there, but ultimately we decided to stay. I didn’t want to be so far away from my parents and I knew that they never wanted to leave their homeland.

“Instead, Yuri and I started a family in Chernivtsi. We had a son, Bohdan, and five years later another, Yevhen. In 2013 I opened an after school teaching English, German and other subjects such as math, physics and art. Over the years the school grew to 10 teachers and around 100 students.

“We had a great life. Bohdan started cycling; Yevhen became a green belt in karate. On Sundays I took her to church. Yuri doesn’t usually come with us – he’s not a big church person – but every Easter he made an exception and joined us. These holidays were always unforgettable. After Mass we went home for a big meal, we ate and laughed all together.

“When Russia invaded Ukraine, our peaceful life was turned upside down. It was the day after my birthday and I got up early to send thank you messages to everyone who had wished me a happy birthday. But when I checked into my social media, it was full of terrible news. I frantically sent messages to friends asking if the war had actually started. They all said the same thing: the unthinkable had become reality. We spent that surreal day terrified, watching the news, wondering if we were safe and fearing that Chernivtsi could be bombed at any moment. I immediately closed my school and moved our classes online.

“That evening my cousin wrote to me in Kherson, a city in southern Ukraine that was heavily attacked. Luckily he was out of the country at the time but worried about his business partner. He asked if I could host his partner’s family – they were fleeing the city and in dire need of housing. I agreed and they arrived the next day. Seeing the fear in her eyes terrified me. You could see the brutal reality of war in their paranoia, in the way they jumped out of their seats when they heard an unexpectedly loud noise. They asked us to take them to safety in case war came to Chernivtsi. We knew that was a possibility. Yuri and I had a long discussion about our next move. We knew that fleeing the country would mean leaving Yuri behind; he had to stay because of martial law in Ukraine. Still, he told us we had to go. We didn’t want to put our sons in danger. We figured it would only be temporary, that we would see each other once the conflict was over.

“Chernivtisi is close to the Romanian border and I had relatives in Timișoara, a city in western Romania. They didn’t have a place to take us, but they found someone nearby who offered to take in Ukrainian refugees. So we packed the essentials for the 700-kilometer drive into our car. Many tears flowed as we hugged and said goodbye to Yuri.

“My sons and I spent 14 uncomfortable hours in line to cross the border, trying and failing to sleep in the confines of our car. When we were in Romania it felt like something heavy had been lifted from my chest. I was still worried about my husband, but it was a relief to know our sons were finally safe. When we arrived in Timișoara we found that our host had left us a nice, clean apartment, fully stocked with groceries.

“A few days after arriving in Romania, Zhanna called. She asked if I would like to come to Canada and live at her house in Mississauga. I was reluctant to take such a big step away from my husband and parents. But Zhanna told me that this was the perfect time for my sons to have a better future there. I called Yuri and he agreed. Even my mother, who was so against me moving 16 years ago, supported the idea. She promised to visit us after the war was over. So I told Zhanna I would accept her offer.

“Zhanna works for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada so she has a lot of experience helping people like us. With her help, we spent the next few weeks applying for our visas and getting all the necessary documents. After getting the approval, we booked train tickets from Timișoara to Bucharest. From there we would fly to Warsaw and then on to Toronto.

“Before we left, we got a chance to see Yuri one more time. At the end of March my sons and I drove to the border and briefly crossed the border into Ukraine. We met him there in a café. The farewell was different this time. We knew we wouldn’t see each other for months, maybe even years. My sons cried all the time. It was difficult to stop hugging, breaking up and not holding my husband anymore. But I had to. We had made a decision that would give our sons security and a good life.

“On April 5, we landed in Toronto after a non-stop journey of almost 24 hours. Zhanna and her family picked us up at the airport and took us to their home in Mississauga. Zhanna and her husband have two daughters who are about Yevhen’s age, and she also took in an old school friend from Chernivtsi: Alex, a widower who arrived a day before us with his two children. Altogether we are 10 under one roof.

“Zhanna helped me get a work permit and health card, and she enrolled my sons in the Josyf Cardinal Slipyj Catholic School, the Ukrainian school her daughters attend. Her English is not very good yet, but children are like sponges. I’m sure they will pick it up quickly.

“I’m so thankful for Zhanna’s help – without her none of this would have been possible. But I’m also aware of how much we disrupted her family’s life. She devotes all her free time to us, and I know it can’t be easy for her daughters. I am focused on finding my own job as soon as possible and am currently applying for positions. I would like to continue working as a teacher, but keep my options open.

“When I’m not looking for a job, I’m working on the virtual curriculum for my school in Chernivtsi. I can’t help but feel like I betrayed my faculty and students by locking the doors and leaving them behind.

“My husband and parents are still safe in Chernivtsi, where the devastation that has ravaged much of Ukraine has been avoided. Yuri is not currently doing his regular job, so he helps manage the school’s finances. I call him and my parents every day and we talk about when we’ll see each other again, about our hopes for the end of the war.

“I recently celebrated Easter with my sons and the families we live with. It was nice to keep this tradition in our new country, but it wasn’t the same without Yuri and my family in Ukraine. I don’t know when I’ll be back. I dream of our country prospering again, but who knows when that will happen. Dreams are good, but I have to live in reality. What I do know for sure is that my sons will have a brighter future here in Canada, and that’s the most important thing.”


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