Young Ukrainian sisters who fled Kyiv adapt to school and life in Montreal

After nearly two months of war in their home country, these Ukrainian children are getting used to a new reality and a new language, as they start school in Quebec.

Katerina, 11, and Darina Galamay, 13, left their parents in Ukraine to stay with aunt in Quebec

Katerina Galamay, 11, left, and her sister Darina, 13, fled Ukraine in March to stay with their aunt in Montreal. Their mother had to stay behind because she is a doctor in Kyiv, while their father was conscripted. (Radio-Canada)

In a Montreal classroom for newcomers to Canada, 13-year-old Darina Galamay watches her teacher's lips move as she speaks, but the sounds that come out are indecipherable to her. 

The Ukrainian teen, armed with only a few words of English and no French, uses a phone app to translate and make herself understood by her teacher, as well as by her classmates at École Secondaire Anjou. They are recent arrivals like her, but most are Spanish-speaking.

Despite the challenges, for Darina, just being in class — safe from the roar of military planes overhead — is a respite.

"It saves me, in a sense, because at school, I'm not reading all the news, which is not always good news. I can fill my head with things that are less stressful," said Darina in Ukrainian, in an interview with Radio-Canada.

After nearly two months of war in their home country, Darina and her 11-year-old sister Katerina find themselves adapting to a new school, a new language and a new country, all without their parents. 

Ukrainian teen Darina Galamay listens to her teacher Isabelle Bujold explain common nouns in French, in a class for newcomers at École Secondaire d'Anjou in Montreal. (Radio-Canada)

The sisters fled Kyiv on their own in March to stay with their aunt in Montreal. 

"They really represent the children of Ukraine," said their aunt, Olena Lipatova. "It's terrible…. These are lives that are starting." 

Parents forced to stay behind

At the outset of the invasion, the girls spent a week sleeping on cots in the basement of the hospital where their mother works, sheltering from bombardments. 

The family waited for the moment it would be safe to evacuate. Then, last month, the girls' mother broke the news that they would have to leave the country with a group of strangers, without their parents.

As a doctor, the girls' mother was forced to stay behind, as was their father, who like many other Ukrainian men was conscripted into the military to fight the Russian invasion.

At the outset of the war in Ukraine, Darina and Katerina Galamay spent a week sleeping in the basement of the hospital where their mother works as a doctor. (Courtesy of the Galamay family)

That left Darina in charge of her younger sister as they set out on a long journey, by bus to Poland and by plane to Paris before flying on to Montreal. 

"Crossing the border was long. It was cold. There were a lot of people. There were a lot of little kids. Everyone was sad and scared," she said. 

"You think you're just 13 years old, but you already have big responsibilities for your life and for your sister's life." 

Teaching traumatized students

Darina's teacher, Isabelle Bujold, has taught new immigrants and refugees for the past 13 years. The students are at a mix of grade levels, and many have lived through difficult or traumatic events. Some, like Darina, are still watching those events unfold in real time, online.

"It's really something to get up in the morning, read the newspaper and ask myself, 'Has something really dramatic happened that will have an impact on the life of my student?'" said Bujold.

The school aims to be a safe haven for students, offering psychological services, according to the students' needs.

"They may have lived through separations. They may have seen shocking images," explains school psychologist Stéphanie Limoges.

Sisters Darina, left, and Katerina Galamay have been attending weekend demonstrations in Montreal against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Radio-Canada)

Darina remembers seeing people in Kyiv fleeing their homes, in fear. 

"When I went out on the balcony … I saw people running from their homes, carrying things to their cars. They left quickly. It made me scared," she said.

For now, as they adjust to life in Quebec, Darina and Katerina's only contact with their parents is by phone, not knowing when and where they will all be reunited.

On the weekends, the girls join protests organized by the local Ukrainian community. 

They yell, "Arrêtez Poutine. Fermez le ciel." ("Stop Putin. Close the airspace.")

Those are some of the first words they learned in French.

Based on a report by Radio-Canada’s Marie-Josée Paquette-Comeau