British Columbia

'I couldn't imagine that people can be so kind': Ukrainian refugee bound for Vancouver thanks host families

As Russia invaded her country, Olha Melnyk knew her life was about to be upended — but never expected that people from the other side of the world would come to her aid.

Dozens of residents offering to host Ukrainians fleeing war

Olha Melnyk (left) with her mother Anzhelika Lisova (centre) and sister Kate Melnychenko. Melnyk has applied for an emergency visa to live and work in Canada after fleeing Ukraine. She has arranged a three-month stay with a Vancouver family when she arrives in the country. (Submitted by Olha Melnyk)

As Russia invaded her country, Olha Melnyk knew that she, like millions of other Ukrainians, had to leave her homeland.

The 24-year-old, who was living in Kyiv and working remotely for a U.S. robotics company, knew her life was about to be upended — but never expected that people from the other side of the world would come to her aid.

Melnyk is one of thousands of Ukranians who have applied for the Canadian government's Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel program, which will allow her to live and work in Canada for up to three years.

Supporting that program are dozens of residents in Vancouver who have offered to shelter displaced Ukrainians in their homes upon their arrival.

"I couldn't imagine that people can be so kind, that people … can put so many efforts to help others," Melnyk said in a video interview with CBC News from Poland, where her company has secured her temporary housing.

She said she chose Vancouver on her visa application because the city appealed to her after she researched it online.

A screengrab of Olha Melnyk from an interview with CBC News. Melnyk fled to Poland in February after Russian military forces invaded Ukraine. (CBC News)

She doesn't know exactly when she'll be leaving Poland but has already organized a three-month stay with a family in Vancouver, thanks to resident Sandra Robinson.

Robinson has taken it upon herself to organize shelter in her neighbourhood, using social media and the Ukraine Take Shelter website to match families with potential hosts.

She says she does a few Zoom calls with the hosts and refugees to vet them, and compiles a list of resources for newcomers, such as how to get a health card, how to find employment and how to enrol kids in school.

Robinson said she's amazed and encouraged by the local response, with around 30 people in her neighbourhood alone offering space for Ukrainian families.

"Some said, 'We have a room, we have a spare, whatever. We have Air Miles if they need it,'" she said. "I wasn't asking for these things, but out of the woodwork so many people wanted to help.

"My goal would be for other communities to get together and do the same thing we're doing. It's completely possible. Together people can provide that support."

Sandra Robinson and Agnes Umali-Kindrachuk are working to host Ukrainian families fleeing war. (Janella Hamilton/CBC News)

Among her neighbours helping out is Agnes Umali-Kindrachuk, whose family will host a Ukrainian woman and her daughter.

Umali-Kindrachuk, who came to Canada from the Philippines when she was eight, says she knows a little about what people like Melnyk are facing.

"I came as an immigrant child," she said. "I know what it's like for these women to travel with these kids. I know what it's like to be new ... and all of the emotions that come with uprooting and starting fresh in a new land."

Flight from Ukraine

Melnyk has been through a lot already to get to a position where she can come to Canada.

In late February she flung some possessions together and fled first to her family's home a half-hour outside of Kyiv.

But as Russian troops advanced on the capital, she realized she would have to get out of the country and make for Poland. With difficulties crossing the border directly, she said she had to take an alternative route through Moldova, Romania, Slovakia and Hungary before entering Poland.

Support for refugees in Poland, however, is now under strain with more than 300,000 Ukrainians in the country's capital, Warsaw, alone.

"So, I don't think that this is safe to stay here for all of us," she said, explaining that she's afraid Russia will spread the war beyond Ukraine's borders.

The United Nations has confirmed 1,119 civilian deaths and 1,790 injuries across Ukraine but says the real toll is likely higher.

Melnyk says she fears for her family, which has been split apart by the war. She says her mother and grandparents have chosen to stay in Ukraine, while her sister is in Germany. She says she tries to speak with them often via video calls.

For now, though, she is anticipating coming to Vancouver and trying to find work here. She's looking forward to meeting hosts such as Robinson and Umali-Kindrachuk and thanking them.

"I'm really grateful for all this support, for all this help," she said.

People considering helping Ukrainians in need can consult the Ukrainian Canadian Congress website.

With files from Janella Hamilton