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Ukrainian families building new lives on the Sunshine Coast

After harrowing journeys from their homeland, these Ukrainians have recently arrived to the Sunshine Coast. Anton and Katya Okhmat and seven-year-old Maria fled from Bucha two days before the invasion. Single father Viacheslav (Slava) Sydorov and his twin daughters Polina and Veronica fled Russia-bordering Kharkiv. Sydorov's one plan in life is to help his daughters find a place to call home.

Viacheslav (Slava) Sydorov's one plan in life is to help his twin daughters find a place to call home. After escaping the Russian seige of Kharkiv, he and his daughters are among two families recently arrived from Ukraine, who are now settling into life on the Sunshine Coast. 

Fleeing the war

Anton and Katya Okhmat and seven-year-old daughter Maria had been living in Bucha (close to Kyiv) for three years when they saw Russian president Vladimir Putin on the news and knew war was coming. As information about how the Russians would strike was presented, they realized Bucha would be where a hit would come. Within an hour, they packed their car to leave that night. Although they tried to talk their neighbours into fleeing, they couldn’t convince them. That was two days before the invasion.

Viacheslav (Slava) Sydorov said he was like the Okhmats’ neighbours — he didn’t want to believe war was coming. He and his 14-year-old twins, Polina and Veronica Sydorova, were living in Kharkiv, very close to the Russian border. They woke up at 4 a.m. to bombs falling, and that is how they learned the war had started. The family met up with relatives, and they lined the walls, floor and ceiling of a room with mattresses to protect themselves. Seventeen of them slept in one room for nine days as they waited for the only way out of Kharkiv to be safe enough. Once the Ukrainian army came in, Sydorov and his daughters spent more than a week travelling to Germany, where they waited for Canadian visas.

When Coast Reporter met with Sydorov and the Okhmats at Ideas Space in Gibsons on May 31, they had been out of a 14-day quarantine for less than a week. Daria Anico-Taveras, one of the organizers helping the families (who immigrated from Ukraine to Gibsons with her family in 2020), helped translate. 

The families are working on their English, with the help of English as a Second Language (ESL) tutors twice a week at Anico-Taveras’s Ideas Space. Sydorov’s daughters, he says, can speak English fluently and often use it at home to help him learn. Eventually, they hope to have tutors teaching English at different levels, Anico-Taveras says.

Judy Rother, who was involved in the Tibetan Resettlement Program several years ago on the Sunshine Coast, and Anico-Taveras teamed up to help Ukrainian refugees find local accommodation. They are expecting to help support 10 family units, more than 20 people, coming to the Coast, and have heard of other families arriving, too. 

“I think both of us see that relationship building is what's really important,” Rother said. Once families are placed in accommodation, most of it temporary, there’s helping establish their lives and a sense of community.

Life on the Coast

As they waited out the quarantine period, the Okhmat family was amazed by the wildlife they were able to see from their window. A family of ducks and a coyote made a dramatic appearance, and the family — awake at odd hours due to jetlag — saw their first bear, Anton recounted with enthusiasm. 

Anvico-Taveras said such wildlife is never seen in urban parts of Ukraine, so the Coast’s nature has made an impression.

Their daughter was especially excited to take a school bus for the first time. For Polina and Veronica, the teenage twins were overjoyed to be reunited with their rollerskates, which had been left behind in Kharkiv. Sydorov was able to coordinate their return with the help of a neighbour, a search over video chat, and passage through five countries. Their house was damaged by a bomb that fell 20 metres away, and the girls’ rollerskates arrived with small shards of glass still embedded in them.

The Ukrainians’ reception on the Coast has been warm. Sydorov said people have been very kind, full of smiles and he’s impressed by the amount of volunteering in the community. He took a job at a pet store, and has started volunteering with a food bank and hopes to join the Gibsons Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre. Katya Okhmat was excited to have a job interview later on May 31, and both families were happy to find people have been understanding of their developing language skills. They’ve also made friends with their host families, who they want to thank in particular. 

In Bucha, life has tried to return to normal, but hidden bombs make it dangerous to return, Anton said. 

Their work visas cover three years, but both families said they hope to stay longer for their daughters’ sake. They’d like not to have to change schools again. 

Community support

Support has come in many forms — too many to name — from corporations and companies to school and community-based efforts. Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. By March, Sunshine Coast fundraising events began collecting donations and financial support to send to Ukraine. Many of the donated items were transported to Ukraine, and shíshálh Nation has offered to store the more than 100 boxes of supplies until they can be used by the arriving families.

“It's hard to answer where it will end. But this is a good starting space and whether the families live here for a long time, this is a place where you can start your life and feel warm, welcome, healthy, and safe,” Rother said. “It’s day by day.”

When asked what Coast residents can do to help, Rother was hesitant to give a list as the volunteers have been overwhelmed by the community’s generosity. “Everything helps,” she said, and suggested people keep an eye on local Facebook groups for specific requests the organizers will put out as they arise. Rother can also be contacted at housing4ukraine@gmail.com

“It’s not unexpected, but it’s still amazing to me,” Rother said of the Coast’s support.

Seeing so many of Ukraine’s blue and yellow national flags raised throughout the Sunshine Coast, Anico-Taveras said, makes her feel so proud she’s brought to tears. 

“It just matters for us, for Ukrainians, to see all those flags.”