Seeking Safety

While trapped in war-torn Kharkiv, Ukraine, a young couple faced a new fear — becoming parents amidst the bombing. Like many others, they had a hard decision to make. Stay and try to survive, or leave to build a new life elsewhere.

Listen to the story:

On February 24, 2022 — just days before Alina was due to deliver her first baby — Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

At the time, Alina and her husband Nurali (last names withheld to protect their privacy and safety) lived in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. Kharkiv is located 19 miles away from the Russian-Ukrainian border in the northeast of the country, and before the full-scale invasion it had a population of 1.5 million people. 

A couple in formal attire stand together. A man, Nuali stands with his arms around the pregnant belly of his partner, Alina.
Nurali and Alina (Supplied)

With Alina nine months pregnant and on the verge of giving birth, the reality of war was overwhelming. They considered travelling to her parents’ home in southern Ukraine, where it was still relatively safe, but their baby’s impending arrival made long-distance travel impossible. When they attempted to leave the city, armed guards blocked their path at every checkpoint, refusing to let a pregnant Alina risk giving birth on the road.

As many men were drafted to fight, Alina remained grateful that her husband could be by her side. Nurali, originally from the Middle East, had come to Ukraine several years earlier for his studies and was excluded from mandatory military service.     

While they were waiting for their baby to arrive, people were evacuating from the area daily, leaving hospitals desperately understaffed, and many hospitals were damaged or destroyed by airstrikes. Strict citywide curfews tightly controlled movement as the conflict escalated, trapping the couple and making even short journeys within the city extremely complicated. 

A specific shuttle with clearance inside the city was the only way to get around. Before the fighting began there were 14 hospitals in Kharkiv, and by the time Alina’s due date passed, only three were left.

Alina and Nurali’s story is one of thousands. 

In Uman, Ukraine, the first missile tore through the stillness at 4:30 am on February 24, 2022, jolting Lilia awake. Lilia immediately told her younger sister Olya and friend Nastya who had spent the night in the apartment that the war had started, but Nastya didn’t believe her.

Five minutes later, she witnessed the reality for herself.

Two sisters with long brown hair pose together.
(L-R) Olyla and Lilia. (Supplied)

Lilia and Olya had spent weeks preparing for a possible invasion. She had been keeping up with the news, gathering information and learning about survival tactics. She bought food ahead of time that would be safe to eat without requiring cooking.

After hearing the first few missiles, Lilia and Olya were scared but instinctively began their survival tactic prep. Lilia barricaded the windows by throwing her mattress up against them, put her stockpile of canned food and water in the bathroom, and filled the sink and bathtub with water. Her weeks of worrying and preparation meant she was ready to survive in wartime conditions. Lilia’s extended family had prepared and discussed what to do if the war escalated.

For the first two hours of the invasion on February 24, bombs relentlessly rained down on Uman. Near the city was the village of Rozsishki, which housed an ammunition depot, the first explosions occurred there. Russian forces, aware of Ukrainian military positions, targeted the areas. The city became a focal point. The first casualties of the attack were tragically documented, and photos from the city centre and residential areas showed the impact of the shells.

“You feel as if you’re inside a movie, but it’s real,” said Lilia.

Still waiting for their baby to arrive and trying to survive the war, Alina and Nurali risked their lives daily to reach a hospital with the hopes of seeing a doctor to get induced. Alina was past her due date, but only two doctors and a handful of nurses were keeping the hospital running. Finally, on March 9, 2022, Alina got her wish and was induced.

In labour and knowing the danger of giving birth in a delivery room on the eighth floor, Alina and Nurali navigated to a lower wing in the hospital, hurrying through hallways filled with wounded soldiers. The sounds of explosions were a constant backdrop. Thick boards barricaded the hospital windows to shield any shattered glass that would compromise the delivery. 

“In the room, I was giving birth and in the next room… life was ending,” said Alina.

David, their healthy baby boy, was born at 5pm. The same night, a kilometre away, Kharkiv’s city hall was bombed — a grim reminder of the world outside the hospital walls. 

Despite Alina’s post-delivery health concerns, she was sent home from the hospital after 12 hours instead of the standard two to three recovery days.

A newborn baby sleeps in a crib with lush blue bedding and a canopy.
David in the nursery Alina and Nurali set up in Ukraine before they left the country (Supplied)

Alina and Nurali knew they needed to take their newborn child someplace safer. At that time in March 2022, citizens could only go to other countries where they had family to support them. Ten days after Alina and David were discharged, the family left Ukraine, and journeyed to Turkey, where Nurali had relatives. 

The journey was fraught, but the family escaped on an over-crowded train. The route involved constant bombings, which would stop the train for hours at a time. With each delay, they waited, questioning if the train would move again. 

Lilia also knew she needed to get out of Ukraine. Her aunt, uncle, and cousin Eddie welcomed her family to stay with them in Winkler, Manitoba, Canada. Lilia’s sister always dreamed about moving to Canada, but Lilia never did. Despite this, Lilia was the only one in her family to leave Ukraine. Her brother was drafted, and his wife and kids were staying with him needed support, so her sister and mother decided to stay too.

“I wasn’t going to wait… when I’m in Ukraine, it’s really hard because you don’t know when you could die,” said Lilia.

Lilia came to Canada in December 2022. She believed she would only stay for a few months, but she has been living with her cousin Eddie and his parents for more than year.

Two cousins pose for a photo in a coffee shop, a young woman with long brown hair and a young man with glasses.
Lilia and Eddie. (Supplied)

Eddie’s family moved to southern Manitoba from Ukraine in 2006 when he was four. After living here for 18 years, he says he is part of a connecting generation that can help newcomers from Ukraine in many ways.

“As you live here for over ten years you start to become more Canadian than Ukrainian,” said Eddie.

Lilia is not the only person that Eddie and his family have supported since the war started. 

“I can’t even count how many people have lived at our house since the full-scale war started… having lived here a long time, maybe we can’t feel what people are going through as much as somebody who just came, but we have more means and opportunities to help,” said Eddie.

After Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Eddie’s family made a point of relearning and speaking their native language at home. The family, once fluent Ukrainian speakers, switched to speaking English at home when they were first learning the language. Now, they have found themselves drawn back to the Ukrainian Slavic language.

Reclaiming their native language became an act of defiance, a way to carve out a space within their own home. This wasn’t just about dusting off old vocabulary. It was a conscious effort to reconnect with a part of themselves that felt threatened. As they stumbled through conversations, resurrecting dormant phrases, a sense of empowerment grew. Eddie’s younger sister, who was born in Canada, never learned the Ukrainian language, and now she is fluent.

Connecting the Ukrainian language to resistance is not new. And taking pride in it is a way of holding on to Ukraine’s independence.

“Throughout history when the Russian Empire would occupy Ukrainian land… if you speak Ukrainian, then you’re uneducated or stupid,” said Eddie. 

This perspective is also backed up in the journal The Battle for Ukrainian: A Comparative Perspective, put out by the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University: “The Ukrainians, in contrast, see themselves as a proud nation with their own history, culture, centuries long struggle for independence, and, of course, language. And while Ukrainian has been dismissed as a dialect of Russian in Moscow, it in fact has a long history – and is very much a language in its own right.”

A newborn with a soother wrapped in a blue blanket lies on the seat of a train.
David on the train (Supplied)

Alina, Nurali, and David’s journey by train should have been 27 hours, but it stretched over 40. Following the train, it took an additional two-day bus ride to reach Turkey’s border. Most of the photos of David as a newborn are from this trip.

Exhausted from days of travel, Nurali and Alina found themselves turned away at the door when they sought refuge with Nurali’s relatives in Turkey because Alina was Catholic and Nurali was Muslim. The family didn’t approve of their relationship.

Alina and Nurali once again had to adjust. Nurali made an agreement with an old friend from Turkey to stay in their attic. 

After sleeping on the floor for several months, Alina and Nurali learned about the Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel program and applied, hoping for a fresh start. 

Canadian authorities registered about 1.2 million applications for the program according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs.

After a month they secured visas and decided on Manitoba because of the lower requirements for permanent residency compared to other provinces.

A small baby sleeps on an airplane seat.
David on the flight to Canada. (Supplied)

Alina, Nurali, and David arrived in Canada on June 23, 2022 and settled in Winkler, Manitoba. 

“Over 200 Ukrainian families came to Winkler within the first year after Russia launched the full-scale war,” said Kate Tykhonova. She immigrated to Winkler from Kyviv, Ukraine in May 2017 and has spent the last two years actively helping other Ukrainians settle in the area. 

This southern Manitoban city, like many others in the area, has a large Mennonite population. Mennonites share a historical connection with Ukraine. Centuries ago, Mennonites fled persecution and found safety in Ukraine. Now, Mennonites have a chance to welcome Ukrainians feeling to safety in Canada. The familiarity of faith, strong community values, and even a shared language has made integration for these newcomers a little easier. Mennonites often speak a German dialect with some Ukrainian influence, which has been passed down through generations.

Alina, Nurali, and David’s first year was filled with challenges. They didn’t have a car for the first year, which often required pushing David’s stroller along the highway. Alina says she remembers very little about David’s first months and her early days in Canada — she was living in survival mode. She says leaving her family and familiar life was incredibly tough. When Nurali left the apartment to go to his manufacturing job she would cry for hours. Alina had constant thoughts about returning to Ukraine and their previous life, but in spite of immigration struggles, they decided to stay for David’s safety.

The stories that Alina was hearing from home solidified their decision. One of Alina’s friends had fled to Poland with her husband and her six-month-old baby in March 2022. The family settled for a few months but decided to move back to Ukraine. Not long after on a family walk through their neighbourhood, a missile hit nearby killing her husband and baby. Afterwards — overwhelmed with grief — she begged Alina not to consider returning to Ukraine and to prioritize their safety above everything. Her friend’s plea was the main reason Alina and Nurali decided to stay in Canada and keep trying to build a life here. 

Building a life over again in a new country has proven difficult. In Ukraine, Alina worked in the medical field, and now in southern Manitoba, she works in a grocery store. Like many immigrants, her credentials are not recognized in Canada. Returning home to Ukraine, where their qualifications are recognized and Alina had an established career, would be easier in many ways.

Lilia, who previously worked as a psychologist and speech therapist in Ukraine, now works at a plant called Icon Technologies Limited in Winkler. Reflecting on her situation, she expressed a deep sense of loss and frustration, seeing her hard-earned certifications and experience devalued.

“In Ukraine, I had a diploma, I had experience… and now I feel like it’s cancelled. I feel like my life is cancelled,” said Lilia.

Lilia found herself comparing her situation to those of other immigrants who’d arrived more established in their careers and lives. They had lost years of the foundation they created for themselves and had to start their careers over alongside her. Here in Canada, she felt like she’d been thrown back in time, forced to “restart” everything. The weight of starting over seemed to be a burden heavier than she’d anticipated.

Lilia says she is constantly tense. 

Southern Manitoban Ukrainian immigrants have a group chat. Members, who have family all over Ukraine, post updates and news from home and tips for adjusting to life in Canada. This chat is one way to connect with people from their cultural community who are going through the same struggles in Canada.

“A lot of people with degrees or diplomas that were respected in their field… are working entry-level jobs. Their education is not valid here. Someone who spent their career working as a lawyer is now working on an assembly line,” said Eddie.

Ukrainian news floods the chat multiple times a day. Lilia is constantly on edge while searching for updates. At one point, a missile hit the area where her family lives. She had to wait nine hours to hear that the missile landed one street over from her parent’s place, partially collapsing a nine-story apartment building and killing multiple people. She knew five of the people who used to live in the building.

“When something happens in Ukraine, you don’t know if it’s affected your family because it’s always quiet before the rescue,” said Lilia.

Even with support, Lilia often feels alone. She wants to be home with her family in Ukraine. She believes that when people go to another country with their entire family, it works out more often because everyone is learning and adapting together. 

Alina remains deeply connected to her roots and culture by preserving family traditions as they navigate life in Canada. Alina and Nurali have created a multicultural family. They preserve traditions from both of their roots and faiths. Alina and Nurali are fluent in Russian, with Alina also fluent in Ukrainian. Despite the hardships, they celebrate diversity, passing on their values to David. 

A family portrait in front a sign with sunflowers. A toddler is held by his mother and his father stands beside them.
David, Alina, and Nurali in Manitoba (Abby Wall with permission from Pembina Valley Online)

For many immigrants, the pull of familiarity and the desire to return to what they know is strong. Despite the challenges they face in their adoptive homeland, the life they once knew offers a sense of comfort and belonging that is difficult to create anywhere else. 

A report by the UN’s International Organization for Migration says that many Ukrainians who were displaced inside Ukraine have also returned to their home areas.

Alina’s commitment to supporting Ukraine is persistent. In her first year in Canada, she had fundraisers for Ukraine (raising over $900 for Ukraine’s defenders) and sold Ukrainian borsht and garlic bonds on Ukraine’s Independence Day, August 24.

Lilia was able to travel back to Ukraine for ten days to reunite with her family on December 28, 2023. All of the suitcases she travelled with were filled with gifts.

After two flights totalling ten hours of airtime and two busses totalling 94 hours on the road, Lilia arrived in Uman at 4am. When she arrived, her parents and sister, who had been eagerly waiting, greeted her.

A family mirror selfie with two young women in hats and a middle aged couple with a suitcase in the foreground.
Lilia (far right) with family on her trip to Ukraine (Supplied)

Lilia and her family spent the early morning hours talking about her trip, and her year in Canada. 

“When you say ten days, it seems like a lot of time, but with nights, and people who you want to see… it’s not a lot of time, ten days isn’t enough,” said Lilia.

Lilia’s first evening with her family, she watched a movie with her young niece and nephews, who crowded around her. Suddenly, alarms were blaring, announcing that everyone needed to get to safety; Lilia wanted to jump out of her skin. The kids leaning on her didn’t flinch. The only indication that Lilia wasn’t the only one hearing the alarms was the children’s whining to turn the volume of the movie up.

Lilia sat still, and her sister reassured her that the alarms blared on the loop all the time. 

“You can’t go every day because you need to be able to live,” said Lilia.

That night Lilia’s young niece and nephews all slept around her in bed, but the alarms kept her awake. The sound of missiles soaring overhead filled Lilia with terror.

She wasn’t worrying about herself; she was worrying about what would happen to the kids. She wasn’t used to the sirens after living in Canada for a year.

“Over the phone my brother told me ‘You think it’s scary because you don’t live in Ukraine… it’s normal,'” said Lilia.

Between missiles flying overhead and the excitement of being with her family, Lilia only slept about four hours a night.

Her sister, Olya, who is doing work through her church In Ukraine, doesn’t plan on going to Canada, even though Lilia and her aunt are trying to persuade her. 

While in Ukraine, Lilia and Olya visited a widow, whose husband (a soldier) had stepped on a mine and died. The widow’s words left Lilia stunned. She spoke of losing half her soul and having nothing to live for without her children.

“When you hear this, you understand it’s not about an accident. An accident… it’s not a natural reason for dying,” said Lilia.

The conversation with the widow stuck with Lilia through her process of leaving.

During her ten-day visit, Lilia treasured every moment with her family. As her trip ended, tearful goodbyes and the weight of uncertainty hung heavy in the air. Surrounded by her loved ones’ embraces and their longing faces, Lilia felt a surge of emotions. 

“I always try to say I love you. I say it again, and again, because I don’t know when I can come again,” said Lilia.

Their journeys to Canada began with the terror of war. Alina, heavily pregnant, and her husband Nurali trapped in Kharkiv. Lilia, a psychologist, jolted awake by the first missile tearing through the stillness of Uman. Fear became a constant as the full-scale invasion of Ukraine shattered their lives.

A mother holds her smiling toddler in her arms and gazes at him with a smile.
David and Alina (Abby Wall)

While Alina and Nurali gambled on escaping with a newborn, Lilia relied on her inner strength to prepare and survive. Both journeys were filled with danger. Alina giving birth during the echoes of explosions, and Lilia, constantly on edge, waiting for news from family in a war-torn country.

David, now two, has a future shaped by his parents’ courage and sacrifice. While a different life might have unfolded in Ukraine, Alina and Nurali are building a foundation for a him here in southern Manitoba.

The scars of war are deep. The longing for home, the constant worry for loved ones left behind, and the frustration of starting over – these are burdens shared by many refugees.

Their stories, two among countless others, are a reminder of the human capacity for resilience, the enduring strength of family bonds, and the unwavering hope for a future free from fear.

Abby Wall

Abby (she/her) is a strategic thinker known for her thorough planning and attention to detail in every creation. Her talent for creating captivating content leaves a lasting impression on audiences.