It’s been a year since Oksana Chapenko decided to move with her mother, her husband and three kids to escape the war in Ukraine.
Two of the couple’s friends died during a Russian missile strike that killed at least 20 people in their home town of Kremenchuk last year.
“We communicate with my sister because she is still in Ukraine — and a lot of our friends — and it’s hard,” Chapenko said.
The kids had to quickly learn English and adapt to being torn apart from the school, sports teams and friends they had back home. But being part of a sports team is helping.
While the toddler is a little young for being on the pitch, Chapenko’s two boys are now part of the Lakeview Community Association soccer team.
“They were very excited because it’s in the community and a lot of guys they know from school. For us adults, it’s an opportunity to communicate as parents in a nice situation. The boys enjoy playing, because it’s friendly soccer,” Chapenko said.
“They build a closer relationship with other boys, so I think it’s a really great opportunity.”
The Lakeview Community Association dipped into its reserve fund to cover the costs of refugees who want to play “the beautiful game.” It’s part of their “no one left behind” policy that started in response to the number of Syrian refugees who are now calling Calgary home.
Tammy Brigidear has been helping around 40 families get settled in Calgary since the war in Ukraine started. She says sports helps build a sense of belonging.
“It was really to help them feel welcome to Canada and to our community, and having the opportunity to do everything that their friends and classmates are doing,” Brigidear said.
“From a parents perspective, they’ve been able to see their kids laugh and play… It gives them peace of mind, and it’s definitely helping both parents and kids settle,” Brigidear said.
Organizers said this is a way for people who may not be able to host a family in their home to feel like they are helping newcomers.
“It’s not just about no one left behind. It’s about the community spirit that lifts everybody — a rising tide lifts all boats,” said Jon Himmens, president of the Lakeview Community Association. “It’s taken everybody to come together to make this possible.”
The plan is to expand the program to make it permanent, by asking parents to chip in when they register their players.
There are now ten recently-arrived Ukrainian children on the local soccer team in Lakeview.