Olena Shovkum can sum up her experience in Canada thus far with just a few words.
“Everybody’s very helpful,” said the young mother of two, forced to leave her husband behind and rip her family from a wartorn Kyiv last month.
“People are helpful and friendly here. And we are grateful for this.”
The Shovkums — Olena and her two school-aged children, Yaroslav and Maria — arrived in Calgary after fleeing Ukraine a month ago, staying with Olena’s sister and some other family. While they were able to get to safety and the loving arms of a close family member, the journey was not an easy one.
“It’s very hard. When you wake up in the morning and understand you have to grab your kids and run away, it’s always difficult. It was difficult for all of us — not only for us, for many people,” said Shovkum.
On Sunday, the Shovkum family finally got a taste of home, alongside hundreds of others who fled the war-battered nation over the past two months of Russian attacks. A potluck lunch at Bowness Park, hosted by the Calgary branch of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, served as a welcoming party and a chance to connect with people in the same horrible situation trying to build a life — at least temporarily — in a new country.
“I hope to meet people from Ukraine to communicate with them. Maybe my kids can find friends. It’s very important,” said Olena.
The event saw hundreds of Ukrainian Calgarians — those who just arrived and those who have been here for decades — come to welcome the newcomers, gathering for music, food and a sense of community and culture that some thought they’d left behind.
Alberta’s Consul General of Ukraine, Danyleiko Oleksandr, attended the event, speaking to Ukrainian nationals about the consular services available to them. Several immigrant services organizations also set up information booths at the picnic, including Immigrant Services Calgary, Centre for Newcomers and the Calgary Catholic Immigrant Society.
Anatolii Fedotov and Arystiia Fedotova, who came to Calgary from western Ukraine last month with help from their daughter, hope those services can help them learn English and eventually find a job in their new city.
Their daughter, Milka Fedotova, who has lived in Calgary for more than a decade, said she was looking forward to visiting her parents in Ukraine this year as restrictions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic eased, but the Russian invasion changed those plans. While her parents lived in a less harshly attacked region in the western reaches of the country, Milka didn’t hesitate to get her parents to surefire safety in Canada, helping apply for visas and organizing flights and accommodations.
“You never know every day, every minute, anything can change. Rockets can shoot or explosions (can happen); it’s very stressful,” she said.
“They’re grateful so much to the Canadian people and government for hospitality, for support, for help.”
Inna Platonova, the president of the Calgary branch of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, said connecting refugees with services and social events like the potluck is integral to helping Ukrainians fleeing the war settle in Calgary and connect with others with whom they share a language, culture and story.
“Many people who are coming, they don’t have any connection to the community and to the city. They don’t have relatives or friends,” she said.
“I think it’s a good opportunity for them to meet our community and the agencies that are helping.”
While there are no official numbers available, Platonova said “hundreds” of Ukrainians have arrived in Calgary over the last month and she anticipates that number to reach thousands in the near future as the war in their homeland continues.