OLDS, Alta — Two families who fled the war in Ukraine and their host, local resident Peter Premachuk, are amazed and gratified by the warm reception they’ve received since they arrived in Olds in early May.
Sonia Prykhodko, 29, her husband Igor Prykhodko, 33, and their 18-month-old daughter Khrystyna as well as Iryna Vatsyk, 27, her husband Mykhailo Vatsyk, 28 and their two boys, Nazar, 4, and Demian, 3, arrived from western Ukraine on May 4, after a nine-hour flight.
Sonia is Premachuk's fourth cousin. The two families are now staying in the home of Premachuk and his wife Patti until the end of the month, when they’re slated to move into a two-suite bungalow that’s been found for them.
When Russia invaded Ukraine, the Ukraine State Border Guard Service prohibited men age 18-60 from leaving the country; they were needed to stay home and fight, according to reports from several news media.
However, a spokesperson for the two families, say that wasn’t an order.
“It was more of a request,” Premachuk said.
He and Prykhodko say the husbands, Igor Prykhodko and Mykhailo Vatsyk, were out of the country, working in Poland when the war broke out, so the call didn’t apply to them.
During an interview with the Albertan, Sonia said it was a lengthy, exhausting process to get to Olds, but now that they’re here the two families have been overwhelmed with the friendly and sympathetic reception they’ve received from local residents.
Premachuk and Sonia discovered each other a couple of weeks after the invasion began. Then began a lengthy process to bring the two families over here. Over several weeks, about $30,000 was raised to cover expenses associated with that effort.
They moved from western Ukraine to Warsaw, Poland, applying for visas and the biometrics ( such as fingerprints and/or a digital photograph of one's face) to go with them.
They had to move into three different hotels as their reservations ran out in each. Premachuk says it was tough to make reservations because it was uncertain how long they’d have to stay before they could board a plane out of the country.
“It was hard to make hotel reservations because you didn’t know for how long. They moved around a bit to different hotels just because one would end and we’d try to extend it, and then we did once and we couldn’t anymore because they were booked," Premachuk said.
There were lots of little hiccups, like discovering that they had to apply for separate visas for each child. However, eventually all the hurdles were overcome, thanks to lots of communication with Canadian officials.
The waiting was tough, Sonia said.
“I want to say that it was a very, very hard time, not only for us, but also for our husbands because they got used to work every day, yes?”
Finally it was time to board the plane to Frankfurt (at 1 a.m. Alberta time) where they endured a layover. A friend of Premachuk’s sister, who flies around the world on medical business, flew to Europe to help the two families.
Thanks to all the flying he does, before boarding the plane in Frankfurt, the family was able to spend time in the Maple Leaf Lounge, which offered free drinks and other perks.
“We tried to tell them that you’re not going to get that every trip, right,” Peter said with a laugh.
He guided them through the airport in Frankfurt and onto a plane which brought them to Calgary at about 4 p.m. Wednesday, May 4.
“We started flying on Wednesday and we came here on Wednesday,” Sonia said with a laugh.
"They gained eight hours,” Premachuk said, sparking more laughter.
Sonia was grateful for the man's help.
She noted with amazement that after landing with them in Calgary he boarded yet another flight from Calgary back to Saskatoon.
Since arriving in Olds, the two families have been doing various things to settle in, like getting two-way passports and booking medical appointments, opening bank accounts and signing up for social insurance numbers.
But it hasn’t all been bureaucratic stuff.
Not long after arriving, they went shopping for beets at a local grocery store. When a staff member learned where they were from he went out of his way to help them.
"He brought us a big bag. Yeah, he did. And he said, ‘please take as much as you want,’” Sonia said.
"He gave his phone number. He said ‘if you need something please call me,’” Sonia said.
Premachuk is pleased and amazed by the reception his relatives have received as well.
“I’m kind of overwhelmed,” he said. “People ask me, ‘what do they need?’ And they almost have most everything they need to get sort of started here, just in terms of clothes and things like that. But it’s all good.”
They also received donations of lots of clothing.
Premachuk said so far, the two families seem to be setting in pretty well.
“I mean, we’ve got seven extra people in the house and it’s just been easy; easy as pie,” he said. “We're teaching each other language: Ukrainian and English.”
Premachuk and his wife Patti have also been treated to some traditional Ukrainian dishes.
“The first three days I had borscht, made the best I’ve ever had in my life.”
They also got a chance to have perogies and cabbage rolls as well as Ukrainian soup, which is made with potatoes and beef.
Sonia admitted that Olds is larger than the village she came from.
“I think it’s a very nice place. And here, people are very kind and very polite," she said.
“In Ukraine we have a lot of forest. So for example in our village, all our village is surrounded by forest. And here most fields. But it’s also very nice and it’s very good,” she said.
She looked forward to visiting the “very beautiful mountains.”
One mild difference is it’s colder than Sonia and her family were expecting. She said back home it would already be about 25 C.
Premachuk said the dire situation in Ukraine was really brought home when Sonia’s brother contacted them. He’s a member of the national guard and was in full battle gear.
"It brings it home when you see, just on a messenger call, a soldier there with a gun and everything and ‘how’s it going’ kind of thing,” Premachuk said. “It makes it very real – for me, anyway.”
"Once he called me and said ‘do you know the rockets, they were (over) my head,'” Sonia said. "The situation is really very cruel and nobody knows why Ukraine must fight more than 100 years for its independence.”
Sonia was asked if the two families plan to stay in Canada permanently. She said it’s too early to say. However, she noted that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has urged Ukrainian refugees not to return home because it’s not safe.
“(No matter) which country we are in, my heart will always be with Ukraine,” she wrote in an email.
Premachuk said Canadians aren’t necessarily getting all the news about what’s going on in Ukraine.
He at one point said Russian soldiers were massed at the Ukraine/Belarus border, not all that far from Sonia’s home town. But he said that wasn’t really reported because no major bombing or fighting occurred there.
"Before the war everyone thought that Belarus and Ukraine they were really brother countries. But now, after the war, that has changed, very much,” Sonia said.
She praised Canada and the U.S. as well as several Western European countries for all the help they’ve given Ukraine since the invasion began.
Sonia is already looking at ways to help others here from Ukraine.
For example, she plans to offer her services as an interpreter for a couple of students from Ukraine coming to Olds to study at Olds College.
Premachuk has had to do a little adjusting himself.
"You know, I’m 65 years old and I’m learning how to put baby seats in cars,” he said jokingly. “It’s actually a great pleasure. I don’t mind that at all.”