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A year of war: It’s bittersweet for Ukrainians finding refuge in Sarnia-Lambton

Cathy Dobson Many of the 200 or so Ukrainians trying to build a new life in Sarnia, will gather Friday for a candlelight vigil at St. George’s Ukrainian Church to mark a year since their homeland was invaded.
Seven-month-old Emily Komirenko is held by her father Igor, with her mother Olya and brother Ihor, 11, posing for a family photo during their first Canadian Christmas. (Submitted photo)

Cathy Dobson

Many of the 200 or so Ukrainians trying to build a new life in Sarnia, will gather Friday for a candlelight vigil at St. George’s Ukrainian Church to mark a year since their homeland was invaded.

They’ll find friendship and comfort at the church that has been central to helping many relocate to Canada and get re-established.  

But, as hospitable as Sarnia has been, the past year has been terribly difficult in so many ways.

Worry is the worst part, says Olya Komirenko, 31, who was pregnant when she arrived in Corunna in May with her husband, Igor, and their son, Ihor, 11.

Baby Emily arrived July 6 at Bluewater Health, a healthy little girl her parents never anticipated would be born in Canada.

Ihor Komirenko, 11, and his baby sister Emily who was born in Canada only two months after the family fled Ukraine. (Submitted photo)

“I’m lucky. I have my husband and my children with me,” said Komirenko. Many women won’t leave Ukraine because their men are bound by law to serve in the army and they don’t want to leave them, she explained.

But the Komirenkos were in Austria when war broke out Feb. 24 2022. Igor was working there and the family took a huge leap of faith to come to Canada, aided by a group of volunteers headed up by Sarnia’s Dr. Cassandra Taylor.

“This anniversary of the war definitely brings a wide variety of emotions,” said Dr. Taylor. “On one hand, they are here starting a new life and assimilating with our culture and traditions.

“But the downside is that they are not with their families.”

Dr. Taylor is in regular contact with many of the people her group helped bring here.  She sees a great deal of success and gratitude, but she also sees depression and anxiety. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is not uncommon.

“English is a barrier to finding jobs and I know that weighs on them,” said Dr. Taylor.

Some have left Sarnia to find work while others have returned to Europe. She estimates 50% to 75%  are still here.

“And we’re still getting a couple more families every month,” she said. “Our community has been wonderful in providing donations and housing. It never stops.”

The Komirenkos say they are blessed to be hosted by Debbie and Peter Osmond. Peter is a manager at Tandet Logistics where Igor has been hired full-time. He earned his commercial trucking licence in December and is doing well.

The family hopes to move to their own home in Sarnia this spring.

Meanwhile, Olya has her new baby and her son to care for. She tries to fill her days and not worry too much about her family back home. Her mother and sister chose not to leave because their husbands must serve in the army.

“We never know what will happen in the next minute,” Olya said. “It’s hard because we don’t know when it will end.  We are all very worried and pray that the war will end soon.”

George and Iryna Pietersen came to Sarnia with their three-year-old twins last spring. They have both found work and a home of their own.

Twins Jane and George with their parents Iryna and George Pietersen who have found work and settled into their own home since arriving in Sarnia. (Cathy Dobson photo)

“We’re all in the same position,” said Iryna. “We’re all in limbo. No one knows what will happen next.” She said her family is settling in to their new life and she wonders if they’ll ever return to Ukraine.

“It would be difficult to leave,” she said.  “All my family has left Ukraine and gone to the Czech Republic.  If everything works out for us here, we’d like very much to stay. The twins start school here in the fall and soon Canada will be all they know.

“Besides, our country is being bombed. What will be left?”

Mykyta Ivanchuk celebrated his 19th birthday on Feb. 20 in Sarnia surrounded by friends and talking to his parents on the phone in the Ukraine.

Mykyta Ivanchuk celebrated his 19th birthday with his new Canadian friends on Feb. 20. Back row from left: Ben Matlovich, Mykyta Ivanchuk, John Matlovich. Front from left: Ann Verhoeve, Taylor Stevens, Missy Burgess, Blake Stevens, Lisa Matlovich, Amanda Stevens and Matt Stevens. (Submitted photo)

“They are trying to cope but of course everything is depressed there,” he said. “My dad works as a financial manager and some days he has to stay home because there may be an explosion.

“I am really nervous for them and very frustrated by the war, but I understand I am in a safe place and I am working and try to send money for fuel, the car and my mom’s medicine.”

Ivanchuk is hosted by Missy Burgess and said he feels like she’s family.  In January he started studying business at Lambton College.

“I never thought the war would last a year and sometimes I get flashbacks to the days before I left and we hid from missiles.  It kind of hurts inside.

“And yet my gut tells me everything will be okay.  I am adapting fast.”

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