A B.C. Ukrainian woman forced to flee the country with her 10-year-old son when it was invaded by Russia is sharing her story — and her plea to help others in the same situation.
Galyna Danchenko emigrated to Canada from Ukraine in 2009 and became a Canadian citizen in 2016. When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, she returned to her mother country and was working remotely until fighting broke out on Feb. 24.
“Shortly after we heard the air raid sirens, so it was pretty clear what was happening,” Danchenko said.
“It was difficult and stressful, the sirens were going off every few hours, you could hear the planes. It was just a very uneasy feeling. Nobody could sleep. You would sleep for a few hours and then have to wake up and run to the basement. It was like a horror movie.”
Danchenko, her husband Sergei and her son fled to her parents home in the country, and began making plans to return to Canada.
That plan ultimately failed. Despite securing a letter from Canadian officials granting Sergei passage to Canada, border officials would not let him leave because he is a male Ukrainian citizen of fighting age.
The couple tried twice to cross the border into Romania, waiting 10 hours the first time, then spending a night sleeping in their car, only to be told again that Sergei could not leave the country.
“They said you can leave, but he has to stay,” she said.
“All these men, sent to fight, I don’t think it’s fair. All of these women and children going somewhere in the world, who is going to help them and provide for them? I do understand this is wartime and all of that, but I just don’t believe this is very democratic for those men.”
The family returned to her uncle’s home near the border for a few days before Danchenko said they made the gut-wrenching decision to split up, Sergei remaining in country, she and their son heading to Canada.
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Danchenko and her son returned to the Romanian border. After another 20 hour wait they were able to cross and get on a train for Bucharest.
“There were a lot of Ukrainian women with children. You couldn’t buy any food on the train because it was a very old train, but volunteers from Romania would come and give food and toys to the children
“I remember this lady she would give the toy and say, ‘Just smile, please smile,’ but those kids, I don’t think they could smile.”
The pair eventually made it back to Canada, where Danchenko said she’s had lots of support from her employer getting set up and back to work.
But she can’t stop thinking of all the other Ukrainian women and children that don’t have the language skills or connections in Canada that she does.
“All of those women with children — they don’t have money. They were out of work for weeks, and they don’t have anywhere to go,” she said.
“They need financial help. They need someone to guide them through this process. Most of them are in a very desperate situation. All of us together can influence that.”
Danchenko has since started a GoFundMe campaign aimed at supporting three mothers with children who are in the process of fleeing to Canada with “nothing but a few backpacks of their belongings.”
She’s managed to raise about $7,000 so far.
“My responsibility and duty is to help those other families,” she said.
While caring for her son and trying to help other women in her situation has given her focus, Danchenko said it’s impossible to keep the war off her mind.
While her husband, a personal trainer by trade, was forced to stay in Ukraine, he hasn’t been called up to active service yet and is currently staying with his family.
She speaks with him twice a day, and says their calls are terrifying.
“How are you doing? Are you alive? Are you safe? Well, you can not say you are safe, but are you OK? Were there any bombings? Did you have to run to the basement?” is a typical conversation, she said.
“I think a lot of people cannot grasp it until now. Even me, sometimes when I think, ‘No, this is not happening. That’s not true, this is not real.’ But it is very real.”