Thunder Bay

Ukrainians finding their feet in Thunder Bay, Ont., as Russian invasion nears 4th month

Oleksandr Urkhanov arrived in Thunder Bay in mid-May and is one of the Ukrainian newcomers calling northwestern Ontario home in the wake of the Russian invasion of his country.

Oleksandr Ukhanov is in Canada working 2 jobs, settling in while waiting for family to join him

Oleksandr Ukhanov, left, is a refugee from Ukraine and has begun building his life with help from his sponsor, David Walsh, in Thunder Bay, Ont. (Amy Hadley/CBC )

Oleksandr Ukhanov's life is much different than it was six months ago.

The Ukrainian man finds himself in Canada, building a new life in Thunder Bay, Ont., while his wife and children remain overseas as his home country is under siege.

Ukhanov is originally from Ternopil, a city of about 200,000 people in western Ukraine, but had been working in Israel when the Russian invasion of his homeland started earlier this year.

Nearing its fourth month, the war has displaced millions, devastated Ukrainian cities, caused a humanitarian crisis and fuelled insecurity around the world. According to Ottawa, some 43,000 people from Ukraine have arrived by air and nearly 8,400 by land over the past several months, as part of special Canadian government programs.

Though Ukhanov is now safe in Canada, he has friends who remain in Mariupol and Kyiv — cities that have taken heavy hits from the Russian offensive — and knows people in Kyiv who died defending the capital from Russian forces

"I am worried about this. It's my country. I was born there. My childhood was there.

"My best friends stayed there. It's terrible."

'I had to do something'

As Russian troops made their way across the Ukrainian border, Thunder Bay resident David Walsh was following news footage.

The scenes of destruction, and of Ukrainians leaving their country in search of safety, stuck with him.

"I thought I had to do something and do whatever I could do to help these people," Walsh said.

Walsh contacted the Thunder Bay Multicultural Association to express interest and availability in opening up his home.

Meanwhile, Ukhanov began exploring pathways to find somewhere he could move to with his family, and sent out messages to a number of settlement agencies. The first response he received was from the Thunder Bay Multicultural Association.

A couple of months later, Walsh's phone rang with a call telling him that somebody — Ukhanov — was on his way to Thunder Bay.

'This has been a history lesson'

That first day in northwestern Ontario for Ukhanov in mid-May included a trip to one of the region's most scenic spots —Kakabeka Falls. In the days that followed, Walsh helped Ukhanov prepare for his new life in Canada, including getting a social insurance number, obtaining medication and finding work.

"I wasn't used to having anybody live with me, so that was a little different. What I found was just having conversations with Oleksandr, and learning about the history of his world and the culture — it amazed me," Walsh said.

"I tell everybody this has been a history lesson, a live history lesson for me, learning about how another part of the world actually is." 

LISTEN | Meet Oleksandr Ukhanov and his Thunder Bay host, David Walsh:
A small, but growing number of Ukrainians are settling in northwestern Ontario, with hopes of building a new life here. Meet one of them, and his Thunder Bay host.

But Walsh said it hasn't been without some challenges.

"I'm struggling to comprehend some of the language. There's a lot of different words that mean a lot of different things in Ukrainian, and the pronunciation of a lot of words is very unique," he said. "But we're doing OK. I just thoroughly enjoy the time we've been able to spend together and I'm having a blast."

Multicultural association supports refugees

Cathy Woodbeck, the Thunder Bay Multicultural Association's executive director, said it's difficult to quantify how many Ukrainian refugees have made their way to the city. The earliest arrivals were those who already had family living in the area or had been outside of Ukraine when the war started.

She said while the multicultural association provides direct support for some of the newcomers, others are privately sponsored and arrive on their own.

Firefighters work at the site of a fire after Russian shelling in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, on Saturday. The Russian invasion is nearing its fourth month. (George Ivanchenko/The Associated Press)

Woodbeck expects the organization could work with as many as 20 newly arrived Ukrainian families through the summer.

"We've had every form of assistance you can really imagine. People really are interested in assisting, and are really impacted by what's happening in Ukraine and want to help the ones who get there in any way they can.

"It's really overwhelming."

Woodbeck said the newcomers have found work placements in a number of different fields, including construction, hospitality and service, and one person used their skills to get a job at a local shipyard.

'Very happy' to be in Thunder Bay

Ukhanov has two jobs — one in construction and one at Sweet G's Family Restaurant on Dawson Road.

"I'm very happy to stay here in Thunder Bay," he said. "[People] have helped me so much. I'm very appreciative of Dave and his family."

Sweet G's Family Restaurant owner Gord Moir, left, says he hired Ukhanov, centre, after being introduced by Walsh, who's a regular at the restaurant. (Amy Hadley/CBC)

Sweet G's owner, Gord Moir, said Ukhanov has helped bring some Ukrainian recipes — including solyanka and borscht soups — into the kitchen.

"It's going extremely well. I was surprised with his command of the English language. He seems to understand everything very well," Moir said. 

"The rest of the staff have embraced him and they really like having him around. He's a very pleasant fellow to work with. It's been a very positive experience."

Ukhanov said his wife and two children are currently in Italy, and he hopes they'll soon join him in Canada.

"I just want to work, make money and give a good education for my kids," he said. "For me, it's family in the first place."