Little Strathroy provides welcome home for Ukrainians fleeing Russia's war

Strathroy has become a safe landing spot for Ukrainians fleeing war in their homeland.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine forced Alla Shevchuk, her husband and three children to flee their home of Zaporizhzhia. They've landed in Strathroy, Ont., where Alla is selling perogies by sharing a kitchen with a local ice cream shop.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine forced Alla Shevchuk, her husband and three children to flee their home of Zaporizhzhia. They've landed in Strathroy, Ont., where Alla is selling perogies and considering making Canada her family's permanent home. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

Glance at her appointment calendar, and you'd never guess that Alla Shevchuk is a Ukrainian refugee fleeing the Russian invasion who's only been living in Strathroy, Ont., with her family for seven months. 

A married mother with three kids between the ages of four and eight, Shevchuk operates a business selling perogies from an ice cream shop where she rents kitchen space. 

Her husband, who worked as an engineer in Ukraine before the invasion, has a full-time job at a local auto parts plant. 

Her children are enrolled in school, and she's taking online business courses at Fanshawe College. Meanwhile, she's also involved in Rotary and other service groups in town. 

"It's simple being here because all the people have been so kind," said Shevchuk. 

She ended up in Strathroy because prior to leaving Ukraine, that's where she connected with a host family online. She and her family lived with their hosts for three months before they were able to move into their own place.

Though no hard numbers are available, it's believed that about two dozen Ukrainians fleeing the war at home have settled in Strathroy. 

Shevchuk's family is from Zaporizhzhia, a city of more than 700,000 in southeastern Ukraine. 

She admits it was culture shock, not only being forced to uproot her family and come to Canada, but to relocate in a town of about 20,000 people. But Strathroy has quickly grown on Shevchuk and her family.

"When we arrived I was like "Oh, it's really different' but three days later, my husband said 'I would like to stay in Strathroy and I don't want to come back to Ukraine,'" she said. 

Shevchuk said Strathroy's small size has been an advantage for her family over landing in larger centres such as Toronto, Ottawa or even London, located just 30 minutes away. 

She's met people and made friends quickly. During her conversation with CBC News, a steady line of customers dropped by to buy her perogies, most already on a first-name basis with her.

Shevchuk's kids are all enrolled in school. They're learning English during the day and teaching the finer points of the language to Shevchuk and her husband when they get home. 

"For this moment, I forget about war," said Shevchuk. "All these meetings, they make me useful and I can thank all Canadian people. If you like to find opportunities, you can do it." 

Julie Bullock is with Community Employment Choices in Strathroy. Operated on behalf of Employment Ontario, the centre on Second Street has become a kind of connection point for many Ukrainians fleeing the war, a place where they can find out everything from where to find a dentist to the location of the library. 

"I think Middlesex County as a whole has provided a welcoming environment for the Ukrainians who are here," said Bullock. 

Ukrainians 'have grit, they're resilient'

Bullock said she's been impressed with how well Ukrainian clients have been able to integrate in the community. She said many are considering becoming Canadian citizens, regardless of what happens with the war. 

"They have grit, they're resilient," said Bullock. "And they're just determined to make their best out of a bad situation they've left behind." 

Shevchuk is among those considering staying in Canada. She'd like to expand her business and operate out of her own storefront with an expanded menu of Ukrainian offerings. 

"It won't just be perogies, it will be all Ukrainian food," she said.

She's grateful to have a safe home for her family, but also admitted it's difficult checking the news from home at the end of the day. On the morning she spoke with CBC News, a Russian missile struck an apartment in her home town, where her parents and many family members are living. It was an attack that left three civilians dead. 

"It's very hard," she said. "I cry at night because I live two lives, you know? By day it's Canada, at night it's what's happening in Ukraine."