Photos by Carly Thomas
After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, a group in Ontario’s Northumberland County helped 31 families who fled the war settle in the area, about 120 kilometres east of Toronto.
Now, some of the children who came to the county are about to start a new school year in a new country.
Organizers with the group Northumberland for Ukraine Families decided to ease that transition by giving them something fun to do that would allow them to get back a bit of the childhood the war robbed them of.
A CBC News crew visited the camp in in Grafton, Ont., as about two dozen children leaned in to their last days of summer freedom.
They took part in all the classic camp activities, gathering around campfires, singing songs and playing games, such as elimination.
While the children played outside, their parents and other volunteers pinched perogies inside the camp kitchen. Meals at the camp were a mix of classic Canadian camp fare, such as grilled-cheese sandwiches, and traditional Ukrainian food. For the parents, it was a chance to connect and talk about their plans to potentially open a restaurant in a nearby town.
Lunch took place in a dining hall decorated with banners made by previous campers. The campground is owned by a Canadian chapter of Plast, a Ukrainian scouts organization founded in Lviv, Ukraine, in 1911.
‘I have to move forward’
Alexandra Demyda, one of the parents participating, was a flight attendant in Ukraine for 18 years. She just got her food-handling certificate in Ontario and says she’s determined to make the best of her new life in Canada with her two boys.
“I cannot cry all the time,” she said. “I have to move forward because these guys should have a future for sure, and they will have it. So, as long as we’re here already, why not?”
Recreating ‘a new bubble’
Olena Prokopchuk, 15, and Vasylyna Kremeniuk, 13, became fast friends after making a similar dangerous journey six months ago from their homes to the Polish border. They’re trying not to think about the horrors of war and focus on high school, which they are starting this month.
“Scary!” said Kremeniuk.
But it will be less scary if Prokopchuk is by her side, she said.
“When you grow up in a bubble of one country, and you move across the world, it kind of bursts that bubble,” she said. “And having people to recreate a new bubble with you helps a lot.”
‘They just get to be kids’
Olena Hankivsky, one of the driving forces behind Northumberland for Ukraine Families and the camp, wanted to make sure the children had a fun buffer between their arrival in Canada and the start of school.
“We have a number of children that weren’t smiling very much when they first came,” she said. “They weren’t doing much of anything.”
“And to see them here just smiling and being kids, I think that’s really what it’s all about. They just get to be kids and forget about everything else for a while.”
Nik Krememiuk, 8, hammed it up after a cannonball in the pool. He said most Canadians like hockey, but he prefers soccer. He liked that people at the camp spoke Ukrainian and English.
“I’m not sad,” he said. “Because I have a new life.”
Many of the children at the camp came from homes where both Russian and Ukrainian is spoken. At the start of the week, they took a vote and decided the only languages they would use would be Ukrainian and English.
At night, the campers performed skits and sang around the fire. On the night CBC visited, they sang Campfire’s Burning in Ukrainian.
For many, the camp was a place to embrace their new country, while honouring the one they left behind.