In St. Albert, the roar of a lawnmower evokes a simple shrug. For the Rivna sisters, Maria, 11, and Anhelina, 8, it brings back memories of air raid sirens warning Ukrainians to take shelter.
The two young Ukrainians, along with their parents Micha and Natalia Rivna, and their grandmother, Anna Sobotiak, are now relieved to call St. Albert home. Hosting the temporary residents in their Oakmont home are consulting engineer Kevin Giebelhaus and his wife Kathryn, founder of Kathryn Campbell School of Highland Dance.
But it was only seven months ago the Rivna family was attempting to escape Russian missiles and attacks in their city of Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine. Ivano-Frankivsk is particularly vulnerable because it has a military airfield Russian troops can target with high-precision, long-range missiles.
“I knew even before Feb. 23 that a war would start because troops in Russia and Belarus were conducting military training exercises near our borders, and it was inevitable. From Feb. 22 to 24, I couldn’t sleep at night. I didn’t sleep until 2 a.m. ... Then the planes started circling over our house ... At 6 a.m. on Feb. 24, I looked at my phone and Google showed me war had started at 4 a.m.,” said Micha, who spoke to The Gazette using a translation app.
An electrician by trade, he explains the planes flying overhead were Ukrainian aircraft flying away from the base.
“They knew Russia would destroy them and the air base.”
Since the Rivna's apartment was two kilometres from the base, it was inevitable Russian missiles would target the area. Grabbing documents, clothing, medicine, a few toys and books, a cell phone and phone charger, the family of four jumped into their Volkswagon Passat B8. They drove towards Romania, the closest border.
“There was chaos on the road, a lot of cars. Gas stations were full ... There were accidents. When we got to Romania, there were a lot of people and cars who wanted to cross the border. There were even people who left their expensive cars on the road and crossed with small children.”
Stopping only for gas and a limited supply of groceries, they spent 10 hours at the border before driving to Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland, their final European destination. In all, it was three days of hell.
Ukrainian radio channels had amalgamated into one, explained Natalia, making it easier to find reliable news coverage. However, the three-day road trip was filled with confusion and tension.
“We were terrified for our lives,” said Natalia, speaking through St. Albert translator Svitlana Ksendzuk. First, we had to think about the safety of the children. But I was very stressed and was taking pills.”
However, Poland embraced them warmly — not just volunteer agencies, but ordinary residents. Natalia’s mother, Anna, was employed at a Polish orphanage and provided immediate assistance.
“Polish people really helped us, stopping to give us food and drinks and toys for the children. When we were driving to my mother’s house, we stopped by a Polish house. A woman came out and invited us to have food and drinks. It helps when people are so open,” said Natalia.
Through the assistance of Anna’s landlady, the foursome found temporary quarters. The Rivna family discussed staying in Poland. But fears of another Russian invasion prompted them to search for an alternative.
Against her family’s wishes, Natalia returned to the Ivano-Frankivsk apartment on May 12 for one week. It was a storehouse of all her happy family memories: holidaying in the Carpathian Mountains; hunting for mushrooms and wild strawberries in the forest; celebrating Easter in church as a priest blessed the pascal eggs; decorating a Christmas tree for St. Nicholas Day on Dec. 9; cooking three days for a Christmas feast, and simply taking her daughters to gymnastics.
“I couldn’t sleep. I had to see the apartment. The building was there. But it was a different feeling. It was empty. The people were gone. It was a big apartment building, but only four or five families lived there. The rest had gone.”
Natalia retrieved her wedding and family photos, special keepsakes, and school yearbooks. Upon leaving she gave the keys to a homeless family from Kharkiv with a five-year-old daughter. They were bombed out and completely destitute. Passing on all her material possessions, she was at least assured they would have a roof over their heads.
Back in Poland, the ever-alert family saw a notice on Facebook that Canada was fast-tracking its immigration process. Even though the family does not have relatives in Canada, they were accepted within three weeks — the fastest and easiest process they dealt with, said Natalia.
Through St. Albert Hosts Ukraine (CUAET), a private Facebook group that connects Ukrainians to Canadian host families, the Rivna family was matched with the Giebelhaus family.
“I saw Natalia’s post at midnight. Natalia was younger than our daughter and I couldn’t imagine her being in their shoes. If it were our child and they were in that situation, we would want someone to help them,” Kathryn said.
Kevin added, “We watched the news unfold in Ukraine. It was hard to relate. I felt the horror of it. It was almost disabling. There was so much. We thought Putin wouldn’t do it — that it was all for show. It was really a shock. We wondered what we could do. There was almost nothing. But this was something we could do.”
The family of five arrived on July 5. Just as the Giebelhaus family immediately took to Maria and Anhelina, even as the sisters embraced Skye and Seva, so did the household’s two almost identical collies — proof once more that children and animals form special bonds in time of trauma.
“We’ve been abandoned,” laughed Kevin. “They’ve been a big support to the girls.”
“I think they’ve forgotten how to walk,” smiled Kathryn, who spies the girls carrying the beloved dogs.
Not only did the Giebelhaus family rally to support their guests, but their neighbours, immediate family, and friends have pitched in to donate kitchen furniture, dishes, beds, a couch, and food. In addition, Tina Bachynski, a Grade 2 teacher at Ronald Harvey Elementary School, tutored the girls in English throughout the summer.
Currently the girls are enrolled at Ronald Harvey Elementary, Micha is employed as an electrician’s apprentice, and the family is searching for an apartment. Although life is good, and they are planning a future for the girls, Micha, Natalia, and Anna privately grieve for Ukraine and the families who chose to stay behind.
As Micha put it, “I am very worried about Ukraine. I have friends there who have already gone to fight. My home is there. I really want to go to my homeland. I will try to help them as much as we can. We have been suffering a lot morally. We just don’t show it to anyone.”