Calgary·First Person

A Ukrainian refugee taught me what an incredible gift it is to help others

More than 100,000 Ukrainian refugees have already landed in Canada, many relying on strangers for help. In Calgary, Christy Turner invited a young woman to stay with her and discovered a new sense of hope and purpose.

I was feeling a lack of purpose, but now my heart and house are full

A group of four people look into the camera for a selfie standing in front of a mountain lake.
Christy Turner and her Ukrainian guests travelled across Alberta this summer. They took this selfie in the mountains. Left to right: Dmytro Konovalov, Lera Omelchenko, Christy Turner and Oksana Tumano. (Oksana Tumano)

This First Person article is the experience of Christy Turner, who lives in Calgary. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

The pandemic gave me a lot of time to reflect on my life. And without a husband or kids, I felt a lack of purpose.

My mom thought she had the answer. She kept urging me to find a way to help someone else. So this is the story of how I discovered what an incredible gift that advice was. 

At the beginning of this year, I was living alone in a cute 1950s bungalow in northwest Calgary, and although I loved the space, I had three empty bedrooms upstairs that could be doing, well, something.

That's when news broke about Russia's cruel attack on Ukraine. Keeping my mother's advice in mind, I wondered, could I help even one person?

Online, Ukrainians started posting calls for help, searching for temporary places to stay in Canada. I joined a website connecting potential hosts and refugees, and one of the first people I met was Lera Omelchenko, a 27-year-old woman from Odessa who lived with her husband and Samoyed dog, Alaska.

Ukrainian soldiers on a battered street in Bucha, Ukraine, in April with remains of Russian military vehicles. (Jason Ho/CBC)

We connected by video chat and Lera described hearing constant sirens warning citizens to take cover, the explosions nearby and the fear they felt 24 hours a day. The alarms came so frequently, they would pick and choose which ones to treat seriously, often sheltering for hours in a stairwell or bathroom. The horror of war was unimaginable.

Suddenly I felt grateful for my big, empty house.

I worried about inviting a stranger to live with me. But as Lera and I chatted further, we began to feel at ease. I knew she'd have trouble finding a place for the dog Alaska especially, and wanted to help. 

She and Alaska found places on a Canadian government charter flight in early June.

That's when my work began. I printed photos of her and her husband from Instagram since he was of conscription age and had to remain behind. Then I drove all over the city scouting furniture for her bedroom, including a gorgeous yellow bedspread and new blue sheets to create the Ukrainian flag. 

To my delight, as I spread the word, other donations poured in. Friends I hadn't seen in 15 years dropped off a white dresser, a cousin dropped off a basket of Ukrainian goodies and dog treats, and a total stranger transferred $100 for a gift card to help her settle.

Finally she arrived. I picked her up at the airport and marvelled at how comfortable we felt together, despite the 25-year age difference. Lera was stunned that strangers seemed to care so much about her. And for me, she felt like a daughter. I felt protective and came up with endless ideas on how to help her settle, find a job and recover from the trauma of the war zone.

A woman smiles at the camera on a bright, sunny day in the mountains. Her white dog it beside her.
Lera Olmelchenko with her dog Alaska in Kananaskis. (Christy Turner)
A photo of a young woman standing in front of a teepee in Southern Alberta under a night sky.
Photographer and host Christy Turner took this photo of Lera Olmelchenko during their summer travels near Cardston, Alberta. (Christy Turner)

We embarked on a series of mini-getaways to give her peace about her choice of new home. We "comfort camped" in Dinosaur Provincial Park, a cabin in Jasper and a friend's condo in Invermere, B.C.

Her fierce determination to succeed has been inspiring. She landed a job doing remote customer service work for a large international company within three months. She tackled parallel parking and got her drivers' licence, and learned to embrace Calgary through nightly walks with Alaska.

Now, several months in, I wonder why I ever hesitated. Lera brought so much joy to my life and my home, and the experience changed me in other ways, too. I have a new sense of gratitude for what I have, and for the social services, health care and incredible hospitality of this city.

Two young women stand in a kitchen. One is frying something that looks like zucchini slices on the stove.
The women bring laughter and new flavours to Christy Turner's kitchen. Here Oksana Tumano is cooking while Lera Olmelchenko looks on. (Submitted by Christy Turner)

My hosting didn't stop with Lera. Over coffee one day in August, Lera said her best friend, Oksana, was expecting her first baby and trying to flee Crimea with her husband, Dmytro. I opened my doors to them, too. 

Now the house is full of conversation and the smells of whatever the talented Oksana is cooking for the day. Eventually they'll move out to a baby-ready place of their own. I really love helping them meet new milestones — finding places to live, getting jobs and planning to reunite Lera with her beloved husband.

I recall my grandmother sharing that they used to invite foreign soldiers for Sunday dinner during the Second World War. I feel like I am channelling her and have learned that you bless yourself when you find a way to help others — my mother was right again.


Telling your story

As part of our ongoing partnership with the Calgary Public Library, CBC Calgary is running in-person writing workshops to support community members telling their own stories. Read more from this workshop, run out of the Central Library in partnership with the Women's Centre of Calgary.

To find out more, suggest a topic or volunteer a community organization to help host, email CBC producer Elise Stolte or visit cbc.ca/tellingyourstory.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Christy Turner

Freelance Contributor

Christy Turner is a NASA citizen scientist, freelance photographer and storyteller. She's travelled to over 75 countries and now lives in Calgary with her two cats. She is currently working on a photo book of Alberta.

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