British Columbia

Ukrainian arrives in Vancouver with the help of friends, as Russian invasion hits 2-month mark

Olesia Pytlenko, who arrived in Vancouver this week with the help of friends she made in town years ago, is one of about 14,000 Ukrainians who have arrived in Canada since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began two months ago.

Olesia Pytlenko says she hopes to find work and send money home to Ukraine to help, but may return before long

Christina Brock hugs her friend Olesia Pytlenko at the Vancouver International Airport on April 20, 2022. Pytlenko arrived in Canada from Poland, where she applied for a Canadian work visa after fleeing her hometown of Khorol, Ukraine. (Jim Mulleder/CBC)

Christina Brock describes her friend Olesia Pytlenko as a "tough cookie." The two women met in Vancouver about six years ago when they were both doing mixed martial arts.

"She's a bit of a butt-kicker, for sure," said Brock, as she anxiously waited at the arrivals gate at Vancouver International Airport on Wednesday.

The flight landed on time, but it still took two and a half hours for Pytlenko to emerge from the secure area in her beige hoodie and matching sweat pants.

Pytlenko is now one of about 14,000 Ukrainian nationals who have arrived in Canada in the two months since Russian forces invaded Ukraine.

Displaced by war

Every displaced Ukrainian has had a different experience of the war, in which more than 2,000 civilians have been killed in fighting and more than 2,800 injured, according to the United Nations.

The journey, too, has been different for every person who has fled Ukraine. For Pytlenko, it began in her hometown of Khorol, about halfway between Kyiv and Kharkiv.

She had returned there from Vancouver three or four years ago, when she failed to secure a work visa. Pytlenko was living with her parents when the Russian invasion began in late February.

Olesia Pytlenko is pictured with her parents in Ukraine. Her father isn't allowed to leave the country, along with all men aged 18-60, under a general mobilization order from the president. (Olesia Pytlenko)

Though Khorol wasn't being bombed, sites nearby were, and the family quickly decided to head west to Lviv, which was then safer.

'It's going worse and worse'

The day Russian forces invaded, Brock started to worry about her friend. She began messaging her daily to check in and offer whatever help she could.

Pytlenko would send back voice memos, describing air raid sirens, nearby bombings, rising smoke, and taking shelter in bunkers.

"We're just surrounded and right now we're in the centre, in the middle of the war in this way. I don't know what to say, we're just preparing for the worst," said Pytlenko in one recording.

"It's going worse and worse," she said in another. "We're really scared right now that they'll start bombarding us."

Any unusual gap between messages would leave Brock distressed.

"I was just constantly worried about her. If something had happened to her, I would have been devastated. I honestly can't imagine the trauma she's been through," Brock said.

Christina Brock, who lives in West Vancouver, waits at the Vancouver International Airport with a bouquet of flowers for her friend Olesia Pytlenko, due to arrive at the end of a long trip from Ukraine, to Poland, through the Netherlands, to Canada. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

As the threat in Lviv mounted, Pytlenko decided to head for Poland, where she stayed with her brother. It was in Poland that she applied, again, for a Canadian work visa.

According to Brock, Pytlenko was at least 1,100th in line for the visa, and had to wait outside the Canadian embassy in Poland. But her patience paid off, and she was soon approved to come to Canada.

The only problem, aside from struggling with the idea of leaving her friends and family behind in Ukraine, was that she had no money for a flight.

Fortunately, Brock was able to help.

"I did a fundraiser and people donated and helped to [raise funds] for the flight here, which was around $1,500. I had little bit extra left over that I'm going to give her to sort of get her by," she said, adding that she's been working on finding a job for Pytlenko to start right away.

Ukrainians coming to Canada

There were several people waiting for Ukrainians on the same flight from Amsterdam to Vancouver. Among them were a man with a young son, waiting for his 75-year-old father; a woman waiting for the friend of a colleague she had never met, but agreed to help; and a man waiting for a sister-in-law he planned to drive across the U.S. border to Washington.

According to the Canadian Border Services Agency, 11,198 Ukrainian nationals have arrived in Canada by air since the week the invasion began. Another 2,971 have arrived by land.

More than 140,000 people have applied for a temporary resident visa through the new Canada-Ukraine authorization for emergency travel program, with more than 46,000 applications approved, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

"I just can't believe that I made it to Canada. For me, it's still like a dream or something like that. I'm still thinking that tomorrow I'll wake up and I'll be in Ukraine," said Pytlenko.

Olesia Pytlenko says she plans to work in Vancouver and earn money to send home to her family in Ukraine, but she may soon return to the country. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Her 55-year-old father isn't allowed to leave the country, and her mother won't go without him. Pytlenko's brother in Poland is planning to go back to Ukraine to fight.

Pytlenko says she'll work in Canada for a bit and try to send money home to help, but she may return before long.

"I'm just worried about my friends and family. I don't know. I need to try to see what's going to happen, but all my thoughts and all my feelings are right now with my parents and my loved ones."