Nova Scotia

Ukrainian student at Dalhousie trying to live normal life with family in limbo

From thousands of kilometres away, Alina Butova, a Ukrainian microbiology graduate student in Halifax, helped her mother and young siblings escape Kyiv. Now she waits anxiously, trying her best to live a normal life.

From Halifax, Alina Butova helped her mother and young siblings escape Kyiv

Alina Butova standing on the shore of the Black Sea in southern Ukraine. Butova is from Brovary, Ukraine, and is a microbiology graduate student at Dalhousie University. (Submitted by Alina Butova)

Alina Butova was exhausted. After months of preparation, the microbiology and immunology graduate student at Dalhousie University in Halifax had just presented her thesis project. She staggered home for some much-needed sleep.

It wasn't long before her husband woke her with terrible news. Russia had attacked Ukraine.

Butova, 23, reached for her phone and immediately started calling family members. Her mother was in Kyiv with her younger sister and brother.

"I said they have to move to the West," Butova said in an interview.

From thousands of kilometres away, Butova started booking train tickets to help them flee the capital.

Alina Butova, right, with her young sister and brother at their grandfather's in Bohdanivka, Ukraine, an area now occupied by Russian troops. (Submitted by Alina Butova)

More than six and a half million people in Ukraine have been displaced and almost four million forced to flee to neighbouring countries since the war started in February. The United Nations said this week more than 1,000 civilians have been killed.

"It was pretty hard to work for the first weeks," Butova said. "I couldn't eat or sleep."

Like many Ukrainians, Butova's mother, sister and brother eventually landed in Poland. Her father remains in the war-torn country. She said he stayed back in Brovary, a Kyiv suburb, to fight as part of the "territorial defence."

That decision has been hard for her family, Butova said. She said her younger brother called her crying and asked her to convince their father to change his mind.

"I felt really helpless because my small brother was scared and I couldn't do anything," she said.

Butova rejoined a research lab at Dalhousie University as a graduate student after completing a B.Sc. at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv. (Patrick Slaine)

As the war rages on, and west Ukraine is no longer safe, Butova is focusing on her work at Dalhousie University as much as she can.

"I'm trying to live a normal life if that's possible for now," she said.

It's challenging. There's a level of uncertainty that hangs over her.

Instead of booking train tickets for her family to leave Ukraine, Butova planned on scheduling a flight for herself to go home this summer. She's not optimistic that will happen even if Ukraine somehow won the war tomorrow.

She said many cities have been damaged and it will take time to clean up and remove landmines.

It's unlikely Butova's mother, sister and brother will come to Canada, she said. Butova said her mother doesn't speak English, Canada is more expensive than Poland and it's easier to work there.

It's very important that her mother be able to continue to work, Butova said, and "not just to sit in one place."

"For Ukrainians, it's very important to be independent from, like, everybody," Butova said before laughing. "People in Ukraine are not afraid to work hard."

Stanislav Serebriakov is another Ukraine native living in Nova Scotia. He's attended rallies in Halifax in support of Ukraine and, at this point, something is pushing him to do more.

"You just can't do nothing," he said.

Stanislav Serebriakov helping unfold a giant Ukrainian flag in the Grand Parade in Halifax. (Stanislav Serebriakov/Facebook)

Serebriakov moved to Nova Scotia in 2017. He's from Zaporizhzhia, a city northwest of Mariupol. It's almost destroyed, he said.

He said he's angry watching what's happening to Ukraine, and even though he's not there he wants to help. He's not alone. Dozens of people in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have stepped up to volunteer, he said. 

Serebriakov is planning a series of events such as farmers' markets to fundraise money for the people who have been forced from their homes and those who stayed behind to protect what's left. 

He said he talks to friends who are still in Ukraine fighting Russian forces and the support from places like Canada hasn't gone unnoticed.

"They really feel like they're not fighting the war by themselves. They're fighting the war with the rest of the world and rest of the world is on their side."

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