With the help of social media and satellite imagery, Winnipeg high school students help man flee Ukraine
Karen Robb approached geography class at school where she works to help birth father escape
The first time Karen Robb heard her birth father's voice, it was over the sounds of machine gun fire and bombs as he spoke to her from his home in Kyiv, Ukraine.
"It was two hours of getting to know this person, and then bombing, getting to know this person, and then machine gun fire. It was just one of the more surreal moments of my life."
Robb reconnected with her birth father, Gary Milani, two years ago after searching for him for decades. He was born in Canada, but has lived in Ukraine for many years.
After Russia launched its invasion last month, she received a text from him, asking for help getting out of Kyiv.
"So I felt a desperation to do something, and I didn't know exactly what I was going to do."
Robb, who works as an education assistant at Fort Richmond Collegiate in Winnipeg, decided to reach out to the teacher of the school's Grade 12 geography class for ideas.
After getting the assignment of sorts, the students quickly sprung into action, using Google Maps, satellite images and social media to help Gary navigate a labyrinth of rubble and gunfire to make it to the Kyiv train station safely.
He was planning to meet up with his daughter and her mother-in-law, and then head to the station to catch a train to Poland last Tuesday — all while on foot.
But a Ukrainian student at Fort Richmond, Inga Kseniia Tkachuk, found social media posts in Ukrainian saying a bridge he was planning to take had been destroyed by a bomb.
Meanwhile, using live satellite images, the students were able to determine that Russian troops would be at the place Gary and his daughter were planning to meet up, so that plan wouldn't work out.
"It was very sad and he was not happy about it," said Adil Hyat, one of the students in the class.
The next morning, Gary began making his way to the train station on his own. His daughter and mother-in-law had already gone there on their own.
But police stopped him, saying it was too dangerous.
Miraculously, Gary was able to get a cab to take him to the train station, just as that area was being bombed, too.
That's when Robb and the students lost contact with him for close to an hour, not knowing if he was dead or alive.
But then, they got the call they had been hoping for: Gary had made it onto the train, and was headed for safety.
"We were cheering, we were clapping, we were yelling, it was amazing," Hyat said.
"I think we personally felt involved in this, that was the most important thing, was that we did something."
For Kseniia Tkachuk, the school project was deeply personal. She was born in Ukraine and moved to Manitoba several years ago.
Watching the war from afar has made her feel helpless, she said.
"I feel like I did something finally. For the last few days [I] can feel guilty and useless because you're not there, you're not with your family, you're not on the front lines, you're thousands of kilometres away in safety," she said.
"But being able to help save Karen's father made me feel like I did something and I can help contribute to my community."
As for Robb, she said she's just happy to know her birth father is out of harm's way.
"To know he's in Kraków safe right now is a very good feeling."
With files from Janet Stewart