For Valerii and Anastasiia Didenko, the opportunity to move to Canada to escape the war in Ukraine was daunting – but the idea of their five-year-old daughter growing up around battle was unimaginable.
The Ukrainian family arrived to Greater Victoria on May 31 as some of the first to land in B.C. while thousands look to escape the ongoing conflict. Since then, they’ve been staying with a host family in North Saanich, where they told Black Press Media that the community has been welcoming and helpful.
They first arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on May 15, before taking one suitcase on a flight to move in with retired couple Cathy Jansen and Paul Fussell. During their careers, Jansen developed software while Fussell specialized in airplane electronics and piloting.
Jansen brought the idea of hosting a Ukrainian family to her husband because she wanted to do something tangible to help. They settled on their decision when they learned the Didenkos were arriving in Halifax and relied on the Help Ukraine Vancouver Island organization to navigate the hosting process.
Jansen and Fussell have become quite attached to Nikol Didenko – who calls Jansen her third grandmother.
“They are a joy to have around because they are really lovely people,” Jansen said.
Valerii worked seasonally as a welder in Poland, near Warsaw, for roughly six years – during which Anastasiia and their daughter would visit Valerii for up to three months at a time. The family was there when they learned of bombings near their home cities of Shepetivka and Kryvyi Rih, and they had to decide if they would return Ukraine or look elsewhere.
With a three-year work permit granted, Valerii has been able to hit the ground running as a welder in the area. As the family has a visa that allows them to stay in the country for up to 10 years, the hope is Valerii’s work experience will help them to apply for permanent residency or citizenship, he said.
Valerii learned what it feels like to live with war during the three years he served in the Ukrainian army. The first year was mandatory, but Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 when he was close to completing his service, so he served the military for about two more years.
War zones are horrible and any small mistake could mean the end of your life, he said.
“[Moving to Canada] is scary because it is a big step. But when war starts, it is no longer scary. It is very dangerous [to return], I think it would be a stupid idea to go back to hot [front] line war.”
The move to B.C. was hard for Nikol, because she is too young to fully understand the situation. Anastasiia hopes her daughter’s curiosity and friendly personality will encourage her to socialize when she begins Kindergarten in September.
Nikol is learning English from scratch and takes language lessons from a teacher who lives nearby. She plays with the children in the neighbourhood, but can get disheartened when she feels confused by something and has to look to her parents for help.
“When she does not understand I see she tries to find someone to help… She plays with the neighbour kids, but I see Nika does not understand,” Valerii said. “I think she is the same as me, one day she will just start speaking.”
The couple have been meeting other Ukrainians at the local cultural centre’s Wednesday gatherings, which they say has helped with the adjustments of uprooting their lives. There, many people they’ve met speak Ukrainian as a mother tongue or a second language, and there are other families with young kids.
Anastasiia said many Ukrainians believe the war will end and life will go back to normal, but she doesn’t think that will happen anytime soon.
Even with a visa in hand, some Ukrainians are hesitant to relocate across the ocean — but the peace is worth the difficult changes, she said. Now, the Didenko family is focused on finding a suitable place to rent, which has proven to be a challenge as they work within their budget.
Jansen and Fussell have told them not to rush. While they’ll be sad to see the family move on, Jansen said she understands their yearning to grow their independent lives in Greater Victoria.
“We want to build a big happy family,” Anastasiia said, adding that the pair are considering adoption. “I think now after the war in Ukraine, it will be very popular because many children will not have a home or parents.”
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