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Burns Lake is safe harbour for Ukrainians

The debris is still blasting across eastern Ukraine as Russian and Ukrainian forces battle for control of the former Soviet state.
Vitalii, 27, and his wife Elizabeth, 24, just moved to the Lakes District.(Submitted photo/Lakes District News)

The debris is still blasting across eastern Ukraine as Russian and Ukrainian forces battle for control of the former Soviet state.

Some of the scattering is the human kind. A flood of refugees has wafted across the sympathetic globe, a great many have landed in Canada, and one more such family has just arrived in Burns Lake.

Vitalii, 27, and his wife Elizabeth, 24, just moved to the Lakes District from the Velyki Kopani community back home in the Donbas province of Ukraine. It is a town only 80 kms from the hotly contested Crimea province, and for several recent decades in a row has been hard hit militarily, culturally and economically. Armed battles have been going on there since 2014 with Moscow backing pro-Russian separatists fighting against the pro-Ukraine majority.

“I’m not sure they even want to go back. They already see a huge difference in life here,” said Burns Lake’s Paul Hilliard. He and his wife Heather Preachuk have taken them into their home for the foreseeable future.

“I’m a third generation Ukrainian Canadian,” said Preachuk. “I grew up in Manitoba in a small community very connected to its cultural Ukrainian roots. My family continues to observe a lot of Ukrainian traditions. When the war started I decided to try and do something more concrete to support the people. My family in Manitoba has also been helping Ukrainians resettle in Winnipeg.”

Hilliard and Preachuk have observed a quick grasp of initial English, but the communication barrier is still huge.

“Conversations are quite difficult. You’d be amazed how much mannerisms come into a conversation. And if they aren’t there, you lose a lot in the translation,” Hilliard said.

Online translation apps have been helpful, but limited. The Ukrainian couple is so new to Canada, though, that this will soon abate.

Working together to craft answers for the Lakes District News, Vitalii and Elizabeth wanted to say hello and thank you to their new community, and tell a bit about their escape.

“For the first while during the invasion they spent their time hiding in the basement,” they said, through Preachuk and Hilliard. “They left their home, a few-acre farm, their family, parents and grandparents. They fled Sept. 19 by bus through Russian Crimea to the country of Georgia, another former Soviet state that Russia has targeted militarily, to Istanbul, Turkey where they waited for their visa to come through. They were harboured in Turkey by a sympathizer. They arrived in Vancouver on Nov. 29 and Burns Lake on Dec 1. It was minus-32 in Prince George the day they arrived [in northern BC].”

Despite Ukraine being no stranger to winter, their town is located at about the same parallel as Portland and Prince Edward Island, moderated by the effects of the Azov and Black Seas. It’s an agricultural hub similar to the Okanagan.

“Vitalii studied mechanics in college and Elizabeth has her degree in Tourism Services. He worked as a mechanic and she as a tourist agent before starting their own vegetable market farm growing cabbage, eggplant, corn, cauliflower, broccoli and zucchini. Elizabeth would eventually like to open her own bakery and Vitalii would like to open a repair shop.”

Although the conflict is showing signs of ending soon in Ukraine’s favour, the fighting has gone on in their uniquely disputed area for much longer than the official war. Before that, dating back to the Second World War, it has been a province pummelled by deep Nazi desire, due to its coal and agriculture, not to mention its strategic location; then the Russian counter-offensive against Germany followed by decades of occupation that included Russian population seeding and anti-Ukrainian cultural policies, backed up with an iron fist behind the Iron Curtain. Once independence was attained in 1991, the population of the region was, like Crimea, given the democratic freedom to choose their fate. The overwhelming referendum vote, and subsequent affirmative actions, was to link with Ukraine. That sentiment exists today, despite the fledgling democratic government of Ukraine frequently bungling the relationship over the past 30 years. If the war ended this afternoon, people like Vitalii and Elizabeth are in a desperate regional position.

“They would like to stay in Canada and believe they won’t have a home to return to in the Ukraine,” is their translated view.

It’s not like Burns Lake can’t use people with their skills, especially when coupled with their desire to finally live in a safe and stable community. It is remarkably similar to the situation enabling waves of Ukrainians to settle in Canada in generations prior, like Preachuk’s recent ancestors. The future may be uncertain for Vitalii and Elizabeth, but for now they are happy to have no shells whizzing past their house, no hostile troops marching through their town (their estimate was 20,000 Russian soldiers overrunning their area, at the invasion’s peak). They have already marvelled at their first moose sightings, and watched the shooting stars for the first time in their lives. Those streaks across the sky are as benign and beautiful as Canada can represent to someone fleeing war.

A raffle has been started to help raise money for the couple. The generosity of the the community is unbelievable with Cheslatta Carrier Nation donating a trip to Pondosy, Babine Forest Products donating a second price and Michels Pipeline Canada putting up the third prize. Tickets will be available this week at Woods N Water, Lakes District News and many other outlets in town.