Ukrainian Montrealers scramble to get family to safety as fighting intensifies in civilian areas

Ukrainians with ties to Canada's large diaspora are among the hundreds of thousands of people trying to escape the country, but the incessant bombing, the roadblocks and curfews are making their goal increasingly more difficult.

Canadians with ties to Ukraine plead for government to speed up visa process

Ivan Puhachov, a Université de Montréal doctoral student in computer graphics, is struggling to get Canadian visas for his parents and siblings, who have just managed to get out of Kharkiv, one of the first Ukrainian cities to come under attack. (Charles Contant/CBC)

Ivan Puhachov pulls out photos of members of his family who fled Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city, just as Russia began to bomb residential neighbourhoods. 

"The last 96 hours have been a complete nightmare," said Puhachov, a Université de Montréal PhD student who moved to Montreal in 2019.

The photos, printed in colour, tell the story of a different time. The first, taken barely two months ago, shows a happy family travelling in Egypt. 

Now, Puhachov's parents and siblings have just managed to escape from Kharkiv, near the Russian border — one of the first Ukrainian cities to come under attack last Thursday.

"Every morning after a few hours of sleep, I wake up and I call my parents," said Puhachov. "I am grateful they had this option to [flee] from the bombshelling."

He said his parents and siblings have made their way to central Ukraine, and are hoping to find their way to Canada, but the incessant bombing, the roadblocks and curfews are making that goal increasingly difficult.

WATCH | Ukrainian Montrealer fears for his family in Ukraine: 

'It's like one complete nightmare'

9 months ago
Duration 2:18
Ivan Puhachov is worried for his family and his country as the Russian invasion continues in Ukraine. His family fled from Kharkiv, which is under attack, to stay with relatives in central Ukraine. Puhachov is working towards his PhD in computer graphics at the Université de Montréal.

Puhachov's father, who turned 50 on Sunday, may not be able to leave at all; he likely will have to stay in case he is called to fight alongside other civilians and the Ukrainian army. 

"I don't have words to explain the feelings that I have right now," Puhachov said. "It's part of what terrifies me the most."

Puhachov's relatives are among the hundreds of thousands of people vying to escape the country, many with ties to Canada's large Ukrainian diaspora.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said it has so far approved nearly 4,000 applications to come into Canada from Ukrainian citizens.

The federal agency said it is prioritizing "new and replacement travel documents for Canadian citizens, permanent residents and their immediate family members." It also said it is fast-tracking permanent and temporary residence applications. 

Visa process too slow

Puhachov has made visa applications for his whole family, but he worries the process won't be fast enough to save them.

"I ask that more resources be put into that question," Puhachov said. "I ask politicians to be even more involved in what's happening there because in the end, none of us want to leave our country. We want to be there. We want to build an independent country."

Puhachov flipped through the photos he brought, showing them to the camera and telling the story behind each picture. 

Ivan Puhachov and his wife travelled to Egypt just before the new year with his parents and younger brother. (CBC)

One image was of his wife and sister next to a snow sculpture in a Kharkiv schoolyard. The basement of the school is now a bomb shelter. 

Puhachov's voice was filled with disbelief as he recounted how his father told him gunshots rang out Sunday in that very schoolyard as civilians were taking shelter just metres away. 

Another picture shows Puhachov with a large group of people in an old factory that had been turned into an art space five years ago. That, too, has become a bomb shelter. 

'By miracle she escaped'

Mariia Myronova, who is also from Ukraine and lives in Montreal, is trying to get her family out, too. 

Myronova's sister, Sofia, managed to make it across the border into Poland, but her parents remain in the capital, Kyiv.

Michel Mrozek and Mariia Myronova are trying to get Myronova's sister, who recently escaped to Poland, into Canada. (CBC)

"They told me they woke up between 4 and 5 a.m., and they heard explosions — some around their place," Myronova said. She said they may have to join the army to fight, as well, because they have past military experience.

Myronova and her partner, Michel Mrozek, are now focusing their efforts on bringing her sister to Canada.

"By miracle, she escaped to Poland," Myronova said. Her sister found a stranger on Facebook to give her a ride in a car filled with others leaving the country. She is in Warsaw now.

Michel Mrozek's uncle snapped a picture of Myronova when he picked her up at the border in Poland. 'I can't tell you how happy we were to see that smile,' Mrozek said. (Submitted by Michel Mrozek)

"I spoke with my mom just a moment ago, and they have the danger of air attacks right now," Myronova said. "We are very scared.… They're trying their best to hide."

With files from Miriam Lafontaine


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