The Current19:10Russian-Canadian helps Ukrainians resettle across Canada
Katya Sundukova is one of many people in Canada who have opened the doors of their homes to Ukrainians fleeing their country after Russia’s invasion.
But she has to face one hurdle when she first meets a new guest: Sundukova is Russian.
“I had a little bit of anxiety when our first family arrived,” said Sundukova, who lives with her husband Jason Campbell in Caledon Hills, Ont., about an hour’s drive north of Toronto.
But after some “heart-to-heart” discussion, she and her guests are at ease.
“I think it’s my personal healing process from, you know, the pain that we all experience as Russians and Ukrainians, you know, being put into this situation where brothers and sisters are in the conflict now.”
Sundukova, a permanent resident who has lived in Canada for 10 years, has hosted 32 Ukrainians, including 14 families, in her home over the past year. She says their length of stay varies anywhere from two days to two months.
The fleeing Ukrainians met Sundukova through grassroots Facebook groups and ICanHelp.host, an international network of volunteers working to connect Ukrainians with prospective hosts around the world. The Canadian government has authorized Ukrainians to come to Canada through the Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel program.
She then helps them look for possible longer-term housing and work, including connecting them with potential employers to refining their cover letters.
But she can’t help everyone who asks. Since putting her contact information on ICanHelp.host, she says she gets as many as 20 requests a day from people hoping to stay with her.
Olha Sukhina and her three children fled their beloved hometown of Odesa, southern Ukraine, on Feb. 24, 2022 — the day the war began.
They stayed with Sundukova for two weeks, before moving to Owen Sound, Ont. The municipality, with the support of local businesses, was offering free rent to Ukrainian women and children fleeing the war.
Sukhina lived in Owen Sound rent-free for the first six months, and is still paying below market value. She’s currently working in a kitchen. She’s also started her own business selling perogies and borscht at the local farmers’ market.
Her arrival followed a fraught journey that included driving across a bridge in the dark of night as Russian ships watched from just offshore, holing up in a small village close to the Ukraine-Romania border, and spending three months in a Bulgarian hotel with about 2,000 other Ukrainians who had also fled.
At the camp, she helped organize doctor visits and manage their medical supplies, despite having no experience in health care, amidst outbreaks of COVID-19 and chickenpox.
“Oh my God, it was a crazy time,” she recalled.
For a time, listening to someone speak Russian pained Sukhina emotionally. But she was able to move past the immediate trauma, at least for now, by remembering her own mixed Ukrainian and Russian heritage.
“When I ask questions of myself — who I am — I am a woman. I am mixed. It’s normal,” she said.
“Nationalities [are] no good. It’s government, it’s political. The people need to know: we are human.”
Sundukova’s home is spacious, with four floors of living space, three bedrooms and a large loft. Oh, and don’t forget the large yurt in their yard. It’s nestled in a serene rural setting, on almost 10 hectares of woodland criss-crossed with creeks and trails.
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t get cramped. Sundukova recalled once hosting two families, a total of eight people.
“It was actually our first guests because they didn’t want to separate. They were quite scared and they wanted to stay together,” she recalled.
Despite their impressive home, Sundukova says she and her family aren’t “cash-rich” enough to sponsor all of their hosts for their travel from Ukraine to Canada.
She and Campbell both work in event planning, a field that has suffered since the pandemic. To adapt, she started breeding dogs, and hopes to host meditation retreats in their yurt if she can get the permits sorted out.
Ultimately, she can’t do much to help them until they’ve arrived on Canadian soil.
“We just offered our house and food and the drives [around town] so they at some point, you know, could get a job, could find a place, and go on their own,” she said.
Campbell says many of the people they’ve met might become lifelong friends.
“[It] not only makes you feel better for doing something to help, but also just meeting all these new families and, you know, seeing them start new lives here, it’s rewarding,” he said.
One of Sundukova’s recent guests didn’t realize at first that Sundukova was Russian, but it matters little to him.
“I’m absolutely grateful to [her]. I do not see the person by their nation. I do see the person by their actions,” said the man in his mid-20s, who arrived earlier this month from Kyiv. The CBC has agreed to call him Sasha, as he fears repercussions if his real name were used.
The first days of the war were “terrifying” while he was living with his parents in Kyiv, Sasha recalled.
“The hardest thing was, I guess just all of your plans ruined, like with a blink of an eye. So you had your life planned out and boom, there was war.”
Both of Sasha’s parents are still in Kyiv, and his sister is currently living elsewhere in Europe. But he felt coming to Canada would be a better fit, with his English skills.
Staying in Sundukova’s home for a few weeks has provided a well-appreciated respite.
“I do feel like it is some kind of chateau or like a villa in the Alps. Maybe because of the snow,” he said.
‘Their hearts are still in their country’
Sundukova took her first break from hosting Ukrainians fleeing the war just before Christmas, citing burnout and a need to recharge.
She knows that even with her help, it will still be a long road ahead for many of them, whether they choose to stay in Canada long-term or hope to return to Ukraine one day.
“I wouldn’t say they’re flourishing. Like … they struggle to pay their rent. Most of them are on minimum [wage]. So they still use food banks. They cannot afford a car, cannot afford normal things which they used to have,” she said.
“And they are watching the news daily. So they’re heartbroken. Their hearts are still in their country.”
Sukhina admitted that at times, she had felt like “a robot,” disconnected from joy, once the initial euphoria of arriving in Canada wore off.
“One time I said, ‘you need to look at the sky. It’s the star, it’s the sun, it’s the moon. You need to be happy you’re alive. It’s OK, and your kids are with you,'” she said.
Even on their off time, Sundukova invited some former house guests to their yurt, and threw a New Year’s party.
“We made up a play, like a little kind of a family theatre event, and we had 35 actors participating in it,” she said.
They’re already expecting their next family next month. She has no doubt that by helping Ukrainians fleeing the war, she has helped herself, too.
“I know how much pain there still is with anybody who is from Ukraine or Russia or anywhere near there,” she said.
“So I’ll just help as long as I can.”