London, Ont. a home for Ukrainians one year after war began

Bozehena Melnychuk, middle left, and Marta Kosar, middle right, are living in London, Ont., due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Posing with them are their aunt Sofiya Mertsalo, left, and president of the London chapter of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress Daria Hryckiw, right, on Feb. 23, 2023. Marshall Healey/980 CFPL

One year ago, on Feb. 24, 2022, Marta Kosar woke up to her mother saying war had broken out as Russia invaded their country.

After one week of not going outside and trips to a basement when air-raid sirens went off in her home city of Lviv on the western edge of Ukraine, the 16-year-old Kosar began the arduous travel away from her home, her family, her friends and her country.

After leaving Ukraine on March 2, Kosar made her way to Hungary for one week. After Hungary, Kosar made stops in Austria, Spain for one month and Montreal for a few days before planting herself in London on April 27.

“It was a long way here,” Kosar tells Global News on the eve of the war turning one year old.

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A little less than five months later, Kosar’s first cousin, 15-year-old Bozehena Melnychuk, arrived from Ukraine on Sept. 24, 2022, leaving her home and family for a temporary safe place with her cousin and aunt Sofiya.

During their time in Ukraine, after the war began, the pair say air-raid sirens were a daily occurrence, though luckily, the dropping of bombs was not as frequent.

Kosar and Melnychuk are just two of the more than 150,000 Ukrainians that have made their way to Canada since the conflict broke out a year ago.

The teenagers attend St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Secondary School in London’s west end. Both in Grade 10, the pair say their teachers and classmates have been “amazing” in making them feel comfortable.

“They are very kind and they want to help me get better,” Kosar said of her teachers.

Kosar and Melnychuk said the adjustment to Canadian high school has gone well, with Kosar saying she is excelling in math now compared with back home.

Melnychuk, adding that math is something she finds easier as well, says she sometimes struggles with communicating in English, as she has only been in London for five months.

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“I understand the information, but speaking is harder,” says Melnychuk, though she adds with confidence that it will improve.

Melnychuk and Kosar expressed gratitude to people in London and Canada who supported Ukrainians, including their host family.

“They have helped us with everything and gave to us a place to call home,” said Melnychuk.

While adjusting to school and living in Canada has been good, there is one thing they were not prepared for: the weather.

“It’s freezing here, and the winds are very strong,” Kosar says with a chuckle.

But as much as their teachers and new friends have worked to help Kosar and Melnychuk feel welcome and adjust to the chilly weather, London is still not their home, nor where their family and friends are. The teenagers keep in touch with family virtually but say it’s not like being in person.

“I miss family, friends, my home, my room,” says Kosar, adding that she misses the simple pleasure of just walking down her home street with neighbours.

Melnychuk says she misses her mom and older sister, who is attending university.

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Unlike some of the 150,000 Ukrainians in Canada displaced by the war, Kosar and Melnychuk say coming to Canada was part of their life plans. It just came a few years ahead of schedule.

Both say before the war, Western University was already circled as a place to continue their studies after high school. Melnychuk says she wishes to study engineering, while Kosar wants to study cosmetology or dermatology.

Kosar says she is looking forward to the day she sees her family again. Still, she reiterates that she plans for Canada to be a part of her life to come.

“I’m starting a new life and I want to finish my studies here,” Kosar says.

“Hopefully I can go home in the summer for one month to see family and friends.”

The London chapter of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress is hosting a candlelight vigil at city hall on Friday at 6 p.m.

Daria Hryckiw, the president of the London chapter, says there will be prayers led by local Catholic, Orthodox and Pentecostal leaders, as well as remarks from Mayor Josh Morgan and local Ukrainians.

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“We will be lighting candles, praying and supporting Ukraine and Ukrainian people,” said Hryckiw.

— with files from The Canadian Press.

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