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Ukrainian artist fleeing Russian war finds refuge, stability in Sarnia

Cathy Dobson A respected Ukrainian artist fleeing the Russian invasion has arrived in Sarnia following a quick response to find her a new home.
Mouth painting artist Natasha Nikolenko, seen here in her new Sarnia apartment, and caregiver Anya Kozub, are the first Ukrainian refugees to arrive in Sarnia. Facebook Image

Cathy Dobson

A respected Ukrainian artist fleeing the Russian invasion has arrived in Sarnia following a quick response to find her a new home.

It took just one week from the initial call to fly Nataliya (Natasha) Nikolenko - who has disabilities - and her caregiver Anya Kozub out of Romania to Sarnia.

Vision Nursing Home has provided a free and accessible apartment in Wellington Flats, and the two women are currently in quarantine.

“I’ve learned through this experience that we have tremendous resources here and a community that really wants to help,” said Tim Gibb, lead pastor at Bethel Pentecostal Church.

He and the Bethel congregation responded immediately to an appeal to help Nikolenko from Ed Dickson, who is with a humanitarian mission known as Loads of Love.

Bethel members have made multiple trips to Ukraine since 2011, and Gibb knows displaced people there who want to come to Sarnia. But getting emergency visas approved has been difficult.

Dickson has known Nikolenko since she was a child. He met her in 1996 on a mission at an orphanage where she lived. The accomplished artist has not had use of her arms or legs since birth.

“I saw in her a gift of positivity and great faith, even though her parents had abandoned her,” Dickson said.

Nikolenko, now 33, learned how to use a paintbrush with her mouth and supports herself by painting award-winning Ukrainian art.

Among other honours, she has been named a Hero of Ukraine and recognized by the national government.

A Vision employee saw Gibb’s call for help and brought it to the attention of CEO Heather Martin. Within 24 hours, accommodation for Nikolenko was in place.

“This is an emergency and we just happened to have an apartment become available when I heard about it,” said Martin.

“Natasha needs accessible housing and we can offer it. We want to do our part to help the Ukrainian crisis.”

Numerous community agencies and Bethel Pentecostal are lining up services for Nikolenko and Kozub as needed, including translators, English classes, groceries and a physical check-up required by the government.

Before the war began in February Nikolenko lived in Dnipo, a city of about one million in eastern Ukraine.

She was awakened at 4 a.m. on Feb. 24 to the sound of explosions, according to a post on her Facebook page, and quickly evacuated to Bucharest, Romania.

Dickson was leading a humanitarian effort to relocate 5,000 children from targeted areas in the Ukraine, and knew Nikolenko needed help as well.

“I am overwhelmed by Sarnia’s generosity,” he said Monday during a stop in the city to visit Nikolenko. He returned from Ukraine Sunday, and described the situation as shocking.

“I was completely surprised by the devastation. The destruction is worse than I thought,” he said.

Loads of Love has 40 employees in the Ukraine and surrounding countries, helping evacuate people from underground bomb shelters.

“It’s so good to see Natasha is safe. She has been through so much,” Dickson said.

As yet, Nikolenko is unavailable for an interview. However, on April 23, three days after arriving in Sarnia, she posted a translated message on Facebook:

“Time passes and you begin to realize and remember that all your dreams that have already been put aside, they immediately begin to come true,” she wrote.

“I gratefully accept into my life joy, love, luxury, wealth, comfort, lightness, health, stability, prosperity, new acquaintance and happiness. Thank you my Great God for sending me good people who are helping me now. I am happy and grateful.”


* The central information hub to help refugees coming to Sarnia-Lambton is Save Ukraine – Sarnia and Lambton County on Facebook.

* Bethel Pentecostal is accepting donations for Natasha and other Ukrainian refugees at\give.

* Loads of Love needs financial support and volunteers willing to go to Eastern Europe. Contact [email protected] and website is

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