The Ukrainian families who fled from war, and are now making homes in Maple Ridge, met for a Christmas celebration last week.
The celebration was held at the Golden Ears United Church, where the newcomers have been coming for English language lessons.
“It’s an amazing organization, that has been helping the Ukrainian community since day one,” said an appreciative Katarina Pogrebinsky, who has also been a big part of that effort.
She is a French teacher at Garibaldi secondary who has lived in Canada for about 30 years, and organized the English language lessons with Ksenia Beliaeva, a recently arrived former professor of English at Kharkiv University.
They were rushing around on Dec. 29, before the kids arrived, finding plates and cutlery in the church kitchen, getting food ready to serve, and Pogrebinsky was wrapping up toys as fast as you could fold a towel. The new toys were donated by the Ridge Meadows Christmas Hamper Society, and there were also presents for adults.
Pogrebinsky explained Ukrainians have traditionally celebrated Christmas on Jan. 7, in accordance with the Russian Orthodox Church. But there is a push in Ukraine to move away from the Orthodox calendar, as a rejection of Moscow.
Without getting political, Beliaeva explained they are in Canada, so they celebrate at the same time as Canadians, on Dec. 25. Their group celebration, originally scheduled for Dec. 23, was delayed by the snow storms.
Children were soon arriving, greeting their friends with huge smiles and running around the church hall. As carefree as they are now, Beliaeva said her six-year-old daughter was terrified of the explosions brought by the Russian invasion. The family would sleep in the corridor of their home, taking blankets and pillows onto the floor, in the area of the building they were told was the safest place if it was hit with a bomb.
“My daughter was afraid of the bombing so much,” she said.
They left to keep her safe – the couple with their daughter, and Beliaeva’s mother. They travelled in March, first on a train to Poland, and then on a flight to Israel, where they have family.
“We were hoping to go back to Ukraine, but then we understood the situation had not changed,” she said.
Coming to Canada was simply their best option.
“We came here without having any relatives, any friends, we didn’t know any single person here,” said Beliaeva. “We just came, and were hoping the Red Cross would help us, and it happened. They were waiting at the airport, and provided us with a hotel for two weeks. I found our host family through Facebook, and we are still living with them.”
She said they are “very special” people, who made room for her family in their farmhouse in Maple Ridge. They celebrated Christmas together.
Santa soon arrived at the Church, taking his seat in a chair with a knit blanket of the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag. Each child came up to talk with him in English, and get a present.
Dmitry and Daria Vinnik watched their son Petr, who is two and a half, bravely have his first face-to-face with Saint Nick.
The proud father said it was a great event, and spoke with an appreciation for how Canada has helped Ukrainians get established here. He has lived in the U.S., and has been a Canadian citizen since 2018, and works in IT.
He said over the holidays they think about loved ones back in Ukraine, where the power infrastructure has been bombed, and people are forced to spend nights in darkness and cold.
“It makes it very difficult for people at this time,” he said.
But he expects those at the Christmas celebration to thrive.
“I’m very optimistic for these people here,” he said of those at the church hall. “They never give up. I never hear anyone crying over the situation they’re in.”
Spending time with other Ukrainian people helps, said Beliaeva.
“We are in the same boat – we help each other,” she said.
“I want to thank every Canadian, because we are getting great support from you,” she said. “And when I meet people, everybody says ‘Welcome to Canada.’”
Pogrebinsky said the Ridge Meadows Ukrainian Welcoming Committee was unique in the Lower Mainland, and it helped 65 families who arrived, by rallying support from the larger community. This included about 30 homestay families who host people at no charge, the Rotary Clubs, Hospice Society, Christmas Hamper Society and private donations.
“None of this would have been possible without the committee,” she said. “We have an incredible community.”
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