In 2015, Petronela Chirila checked herself and her two 15-year-old sons in to an emergency shelter outside of Edmonton.
She had just left her marriage of 18 years. “It was an abusive marriage. Not just with me, but with my kids.”
Chirila said she had contemplated exiting the relationship numerous times before. She went to work that morning, like she did every day.
“I didn’t know I was going to leave that day,” she explained, but a phone call with her now-ex changed all that. “That conversation made me think, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen to me when I go home,'” Chirila said.
“Previous times I had people come over and calm me down. But, that day I felt that I had no one to help me and my kids. That day made me cry at work.
“I felt powerless. I didn’t know what to do.”
But then her manager called an emergency shelter and let staff know to expect Chirila and her children.
“He was the one who made me believe I had a chance.”
Leaving her abusive marriage
When Chirila called the emergency shelter, they had been expecting her call.
“That moment started my journey to freedom,” Chirila said. “There, I found out that second-stage shelters existed.
“An emergency shelter is a place for the time when you are leaving the abusive situation. It cannot provide long-term help. That’s where the second-stage shelter comes in and helps women and kids have a safe place to live and to heal.”
Reflecting on why she chose to leave at that point, Chirila noted the amount of strength it takes to flee your own home.
“It took me so long to be able to leave that situation, because it’s not easy to leave. You need a lot of courage to do that.
“When you are in that situation, you can’t really see how you can survive if you were to leave.”
At the beginning of the relationship, she said things were “not too bad.” It’s not an uncommon tale.
“I was looking to have a family, to love someone. I lost my mom when I was ten.”
“I thought, ‘He’s a good man, he can take care of me and I can take care of him. We will be good together,'” Chirila said.
Chirila said things started to slowly change — firstly, with words.
“I started to think I was the guilty one, I didn’t do things right and it made him angry. Then, I found myself without power and I couldn’t leave. I wasn’t safe [to do that].”
Chirila said she was scared for her family’s life in those moments.
“I wasn’t sure if my kids were ready to leave. [But, when I talked to them] they said, ‘Mom, yes. Enough is enough. We will leave.’
Together, we had the courage to leave and we never regretted it.”
“Being there in that building, that was the most wonderful thing,” she said, adding they moved into a fully furnished apartment with everything they needed. “We just came with our clothes and started living.”
“Having people around to help us, listen to us and all this help from them — it was really wonderful,” Chirila said. “I was here, just me and my kids. I had no one. They saved me.”
“All the people that were there, they were going through this difficult situation. It wasn’t easy to hear their stories. It was a lot of pain.”
Chirila said she met other mothers who were there with their kids, and was in awe of their courage to leave abusive relationships for their kids.
“I befriended a few families there. I was very close with my counsellor. She became my friend. She was there to listen to me.”
Christmas in the shelter
But new challenges emerged as the holiday season loomed.
“Of course, we are happy to be free — but it’s not an easy time for a woman and kids to be alone, to be afraid for their life.
“It’s about that [Christmas] feeling—family time, love, giving. That is the feeling that makes you sad and cry, because you are not in a real family. You have a lot of things going through your head.”
Through campaigns like the Global News Give Me Shelter, she and her kids received some much-needed Christmas cheer.
“The first year there, we received big bags of gifts for me and my kids. We also got a Christmas tree and decorations. They did everything to make us feel welcome and safe.
“It wasn’t a joy to be there, but it was a joy to see that people cared. All these gifts came from people who donated with love. We felt that love.”
Now living in her own apartment with her kids, Chirila said she will spend this Christmas with her son’s girlfriend’s family.
“They kind of adopted me into their family. It’s our second Christmas together. I have extended family now. I am there. So many people can be family.”
Though Chirila is still working through “ongoing healing,” she felt it was important to share what is often a very private experience.
“I want to give them hope that out there is a chance to have another chance for life, another chance to be happy with you and your kids.”
About Give Me Shelter
This holiday season, thousands of women and children will flee their homes to escape domestic violence and find a safe space at one of the five Edmonton and area women’s shelters.
The Give Me Shelter campaign aims to make sure they have not only the essentials to survive, but also an some gifts to make the holiday season a little more enjoyable.
On Wednesday, Global Edmonton will holding an all-day donation drive from 7 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. at 5325 Allard Way NW.
Are you in an abusive relationship? If you are in immediate danger, call 911.