New hope, new home found in B.C. after escaping ravages of war in Ukraine

Click to play video: 'Ukrainian family safe in Canada after husband captured by Russians'
Ukrainian family safe in Canada after husband captured by Russians
WATCH: It is a story of determination, patriotism and survival. A young Ukrainian family is starting over in the Okanagan after a terrifying experience in their homeland. – Mar 10, 2023

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Illia Kruhlov took his wife Sasha and two young daughters to the Polish border and said goodbye for what could have been the last time.

The women, like countless others in Ukraine, sought shelter in Poland while Kruhlov turned back to serve his country.

Reflecting back on that moment nearly a year later from the safety of his new home in West Kelowna, Kruhlov said it was a choice every Ukrainian in his shoes made willingly, prizing the freedoms obtained 30 years earlier when Ukraine became independent.

“Somebody had to do it. If everyone (said) somebody else will (defend the country) then nobody would do (it),” he said, speaking to Global News with the help of translator Denys Storozhuk. “It was a clear choice.”

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Kruhlov, a 38-year-old military veteran, was rejected from the fight due to an injury he suffered years earlier in the Crimea crisis, so he chose to serve in a humanitarian capacity instead, bringing food, water and medical supplies to those who needed it and, in some cases, helping others flee when they were unable to do so on their own.

Click to play video: 'Battle for Bakhmut: Pressure mounts on Ukrainian defenders as Russia encircles city'
Battle for Bakhmut: Pressure mounts on Ukrainian defenders as Russia encircles city

It was work that turned out to be no less perilous.

Trying to explain his daily viewpoint of the carnage his country faced, he told of one day when he and others who turned their focus to survival formed a convoy of vehicles that was slowly snaking through the streets. Their aim was to try and reach those who may have been trapped in areas that were under constant Russian bombardment and wanted to flee.

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“(We were) using speakers, asking ‘who would like to join (the) convoy,'” he said, with Storozhuk translating.

As they inched along the road, people were running from their homes and bomb shelters, directly into moving vehicles. The bus he was driving never stopped due to concerns about nearby Russian drones but still it filled with people, “desperate to get out” while under constant fire.

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“If (we kept) moving it was harder to get (us),” he said, explaining why they stayed in motion.

Illia Kruhlov is a Ukrainian refugee new to West Kelowna. Global News

He was unable to evade Russian attention forever, however.

While delivering food, water and medical supplies to his hometown of Kherson, he was stopped at a Russian checkpoint. When they searched through his car, they found a document that said he was released from military duty.

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That caused them to pause. Looking at the picture of Kruhlov in his uniform, Russian officers took him into custody.

“They believed (we) were Ukrainian spies who came to work together with (the) Ukrainian freedom fighters in this region so they started to interrogate (us) with different ways of psychological pressure and torture,” he said.

For the first few days, Kruhlov said he was without food, subjected to constant bright light and very loud music. When he fell asleep they’d pour cold water on him to wake him up.

Click to play video: 'Ukrainian soldiers share message from the frontline'
Ukrainian soldiers share message from the frontline

He said he wasn’t afraid and had only one thought in his mind: “Is this it?’ Will I ever see my family again?”

It was clear to him that if he admitted he once served in the military he would be killed right away and he directed his energy to keeping that truth hidden.

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But every time they went to his cell or interrogated him, he thought, “is this my last moment?”

After 10 days, however, he was released. It was a tremendous relief but he said he didn’t show his cards. Instead, he turned to the Russian soldiers who’d questioned and tortured him and said, “I told you I have nothing to hide” and left.

His freedom came with a price, however, and his fears shifted. Having been with the Russian Secret Service for 10 days, he had concerns about how his fellow Ukrainians would view his time away, so he knew he couldn’t go back and join them. Instead, he and another made their way to Poland, hitchhiking to where his family had gone.

Click to play video: 'New hope, new home found in B.C. after escaping ravages of war in Ukraine'
New hope, new home found in B.C. after escaping ravages of war in Ukraine

Kruhlov reunited with his wife and daughters six months after they made their goodbyes. So many things had changed. His youngest daughter had taken her first steps and they had all lost so much – family, friends and fellow military squadmates had died.

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Even now, he says, many people he loves remain at risk, living close to the front lines of battle. They’re in regular contact watching as the war carries on, but Kruhlov believes he’s been given a second chance for a new life in Canada and he’s going to embrace it and watch to see what happens on the front lines so far away.

“Sooner or later every war ends. The question is what will be the price, what will be the cost?” he said.

Click to play video: 'Russia launches fresh wave of deadly airstrikes across Ukraine'
Russia launches fresh wave of deadly airstrikes across Ukraine

The path that Kruhlov took to Canada leaves Janice Dewald in awe. She’s currently hosting the family in West Kelowna.

“We’re overwhelmed with what they’ve been through and I know, not just Illia. I know Sasha has been through a lot, living in Poland with her two little children by herself for a year and no family, nobody there,” she said.

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Since the start of the war, 177,958 Ukrainians have arrived in Canada, including Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel program applicants and returning Canadian permanent residents.

The Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel program (CUAET), which expedites visas and temporary residency permits for Ukrainians and their families, is set to expire March 31. At least 590,000 applications through the CUAET program have been approved out of the 900,000 that have been received. Though humanitarian advocates call on the Canadian government to extend the program, federal officials have not yet said whether or not they will do so.

-with files from Sean Boynton

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