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Relief in the Rockies: Jasper campaign opens homes, businesses to Ukrainian refugees

When Margarita Oganova awoke to the roar of military planes overhead, she went to her children’s bedrooms to tell them the war had started.

Confused as he woke up, her 15-year-old son Arkady thought it was a cruel joke. 

“We were thinking she was just trying to wake us because of school but it was real,” Arkady said, remembering how he and his sister, Karina, 13, made their beds and ate breakfast in stunned silence on that Feb. 24 morning.

“It was at that time the sirens were starting, it was really scary for us,” he said. “We didn’t know what to do.” 

It would be the last time he slept in his own bed. Soon he would be packing a small suitcase as the first Russian airstrikes landed on Ukraine.

The family lived in Kremenchuk, a city about five kilometres from an oil refinery that was later destroyed.

relief in the rockies jasper campaign opens homes businesses to ukrainian refugees
Margarita Oganova (fourth from left) with the children and her aunt and grandmother, who both remain in Ukraine. (Anna Kushko/Facebook)

Oganova and her children moved across town that morning to her sister Anna Kushko’s house. In the days before they eventually fled to Poland on March 7, the entire family spent hours at a time underground, in basement rooms fortified with sandbags.

“We, as a people, were very scared,” Oganova said. “Many times in Kremenchuk, there were sirens.” 

The sisters are now waiting out the war in Jasper, Alta.

They are among the first of more than 50 Ukrainians expected to arrive in the mountain town as local families open their homes and businesses to refugees.

Ukraine is in our hearts. When the war stops, we will go back.– Anna Kushko

In Ukraine, Oganova worked as a fitness trainer; Kushko was a sales manager.

The sisters now work together at the Jasper Inn and wash dishes at a local restaurant in the evenings.

The three children remain in Slave Lake, Alta., with relatives so that the women can work longer hours and send money back to the family they left behind, including Anna’s husband.

The sisters are thankful for the work but long for home.

“Jasper is a very beautiful city, with very beautiful mountains, but Ukraine is in our hearts,” Kushko said.

“When the war stops, we will go back.”

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Margarita Oganova (left) and Anna Kushko (in sunglasses) and their children in happier times. (Anna Kushko/Facebook)

More than 10 million Ukrainians — one-quarter of the country’s population — have been driven from their homes, including more than 4.7 million Ukrainians who have fled the country since Russia’s invasion began in February. 

The hope is that some refugees will find a safe haven in the Canadian Rockies. 

Nancy Addison, a retired school teacher in Jasper, is organizing the aid effort. She spends hours speaking with Ukrainians overseas, helping them navigate their way out.

‘It’s all been ripped away’

Addison relies on social media to get in contact with refugees. She then posts detailed profiles on Facebook in an attempt to match them with jobs and accommodations. 

To date, about 20 families — in Jasper, and in Valemount and the Robson Valley on the British Columbia side of the Rockies — have offered to provide Ukrainians a free place to call home for a year.

Many others are helping co-ordinate vehicles, clothing, and flights for the new arrivals. 

Addison is also helping to broker dozens of job offers for the refugees. 

In all, more than 60 refugees have been offered placement. Eight have already arrived and are settling in, she said. 

“Their lives were so normal two months ago, you know, and it’s all been ripped away from them,” she said. “It’s just heartbreaking because it’s so relatable and so arbitrary and so reckless and useless.

“We want to help them to save enough money so that one day, hopefully they can go back and rebuild everything they’ve lost.”

Addison said the need feels overwhelming. She hopes more Albertans will open their homes to refugees.

“That drives me every day, to think that their situation is so dire, and it’s quite an easy fix,” said  Addison, who plans to host a family of four and a pet Shih Tzu currently in Poland. 

“We just need to open our homes and welcome them.” 

relief in the rockies jasper campaign opens homes businesses to ukrainian refugees 2
Iyna Borodulina (lower centre) and her boyfriend Valerii (upper centre) arrived in Alberta last week. They have found a new home in Valemount, B.C., with Taggart Wilson (left) and Swantje Pleister (right). (Submitted by Swantje Pleister)

At a small farm near Valemount, B.C., 120 kilometres west of Jasper, Iyna Borodulina and her boyfriend, Valerii, have just arrived. They will be staying with Taggart Wilson and Swantje Pleister.

Pleister said they felt compelled to help.

Her partner has Ukrainian roots and she knows how hard adjusting to life in a new country can be. She immigrated from Germany about 10 years ago.

“We were wondering how we could help and help in a meaningful way,” she said. “It was a natural thing for us.” 

She picked up her new guests from the Calgary airport on April 10.

‘So thankful’

Borodulina, 27, said she and her boyfriend left Ukraine months before the war started, to work in Poland.

Borodulina said she feels guilty that she escaped the terror of war and worries constantly about her family in Ukraine. 

She is uncertain if she will ever return to Ukraine. She said she and her partner want to build a life in Canada and find good jobs so they can send money home to help relatives rebuild. 

Borodulina said she is settling in at their new home by cooking her new friends her favourite traditional dishes, borscht and stewed cabbage.

“I have a feeling like we met before because we are so close,” she said.

“We are so thankful.”

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