The Current

Worried Canadians can't contact family in Ukraine. A tour guide in B.C. is helping to track them down

B.C. tour operator Myrna Arychuk is using her contacts in Ukraine, including long-time colleague Ruslan Cholovskyy, to help Canadians find out if their loved ones in Ukraine are safe.

Myrna Arychuk has helped Canadians find long-lost Ukrainian relatives for 30 years

Dalia Maziar, front left in leather jacket, travelled to Ukraine in 2002 with her mother Teodozia, left of centre in maroon scarf, and sister Larissa, right of centre in green jacket. They went there to meet their extended Ukrainian family. (Submitted by Dalia Maziar)

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As war in Ukraine makes contacting family there increasingly difficult, a travel agent in B.C. is using her connections to help Canadians get in touch with loved ones and confirm they're safe.

"The Canadian ones are desperate," said Myrna Arychuk, a tour guide with Ukrainian ancestry based in Chilliwack, B.C., who has spent 30 years helping Canadians trace their family history and visit long-lost relatives in Ukraine. 

"They want to know where they are. Are they in a bunker? Did they go to Poland? Do they have food? Are they safe? Do they need money?" she said.

Myrna Arychuk is a tour guide in Chilliwack, B.C. (Submitted by Myrna Arychuk)

These Canadian families might not have been in touch with their distant relatives for some years, and now find that old contact numbers no longer work.

For the last two weeks, Arychuk has been on the phone for hours every day, using her connections to track those relatives down. But when she does get them on the phone, they don't ask for money or material help, she said.

"The family in Ukraine is just so grateful. They cry when they think that their family has not forgotten them," Arychuk told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"It's emotional. I have to get off the phone and I have to take a minute."

The UN human rights office said Friday that it had confirmed 331 civilian deaths, with 675 people injured since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, though it added the real toll is likely much higher. At least one million people have been displaced.

Even before the war broke out last week, Arychuk was helping Canadians alarmed by growing tensions, including Muryl Geary, a retired family history researcher in Vancouver.

Geary grew up in Canada, but has cousins on her father's side in a small town about 100 kilometres south of Lviv. Arychuk organized Geary's first trip there, and she's visited five times over the years. 

Muryl Geary, far left, is welcomed by her relatives, the Andrejciw family, in western Ukraine in 1991. This was her first visit to the family home after Ukraine's independence, and they met her with a walnut cake made from the walnut trees in their orchard. (Submitted by Muryl Geary)

Now in her late 80s, Geary hasn't seen them since 2002, but still checks in about once a year.

When the phone number for her cousins didn't work about a month ago, she contacted Arychuk, who called in the help of her long-time collaborator Ruslan Cholovskyy, a tour guide based in the city of Ternopil, western Ukraine.

"The next thing I knew, I got a message back that Ruslan had been to the village," said Geary, who published a book, Finding your Ukrainian Ancestors, in 2000 under her Ukrainian name Muryl Andrejciw.

"He had seen the family and they were OK, and he had a new phone number for me, which was really incredible," she told The Current.

"I was just so relieved to hear that and so grateful."

Geary and her cousins exchanged emails, and kept in touch the weeks that followed.

"Then the line went silent. Nobody has replied for the last [week]," she said.

If they haven't started bombing that area, and if he feels it's safe enough, he might be able to get to the village.- Muryl Geary, about tour guide Ruslan Cholovskyy

Geary has sent messages urging her cousins to come to Canada if they can, assuring them their family here will help them any way they can.

She said it's been terrible waiting for a response, and to find out if they're OK, but Cholovskyy has offered to try to reach them again.

"If they haven't started bombing that area, and if he feels it's safe enough, he might be able to get to the village and see how they are," Geary said.

"And then I'll be able to get an email. I'm waiting for that."

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The Canadian government announced a slew of new measures intended to help Ukraine as the Russian invasion continues, including promising to accept an unlimited number of Ukrainian refugees trying to escape the war, imposing tariffs on goods from Russia and Belarus and stripping both countries of their Most Favoured Nation status under federal trade law.

Arychuk grateful she can help

After years working with Arychuk, Cholovskyy knows where to go and who to ask to find a specific family.

"In Ukraine, we have [a] saying: your tongue helps you find the way to Kyiv," he said.

For now, the fighting hasn't reached his part of western Ukraine, but getting around is still tricky due to checkpoints on the road, and the risk of violence spreading. But he will drive out into the countryside to find people — if it's safe to do so — because he wants to help people worried about their relatives. 

"Everybody is doing what he can. Somebody is fighting, somebody is collecting food or money," he said.

"You have to do what is possible to do."

Arychuk said she's also grateful that she has the chance to help, because she knows that "it's really important to know that they're OK over there."

Maziar with her family on their 2002 trip to Ukraine. She's glad to be in contact with them now, but also feels helpless. (Submitted by Dalia Maziar)

The tour guides have also recently helped Dalia Maziar, a Vancouver woman with an aunt and two cousins, as well as their kids and grandkids, in Lviv.

Maziar met her extended family in 2002, when she, her sister and mother all travelled to Ukraine on a trip organized by Arychuk.

When she tried to check in with them recently, her calls went unanswered. But Cholovskyy was able to find them, and they contacted her via Whatsapp with a new number. 

"As of this morning, they're OK, but they're very stressed out and scared," Maziar told The Current on Friday.

She said it's reassuring to be in touch, but also highlights how far away she feels.

"What can you say to them? I'm sorry, we're praying for you. Keep strong. You know, it doesn't seem enough, like you feel helpless," she said. 

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She's been able to tell her family what she's seeing in the news in Canada, and keep them up to date on what options are available if they decide to leave Lviv. 

"You don't want to scare them; they don't want to scare you. But you want to be truthful as much as you can, and help as much as you can," she said.

"It's a very difficult balance."

Maziar wants to thank Arychuk and Cholovskyy for helping to keep the lines of communication open. Geary agrees, saying she would "give them the biggest hugs in the world because they have given hope to so many people" separated by war.

"They have lives of their own and they have family that they're concerned about, and yet they've gone that extra mile to help when it's needed for somebody else," Geary said.

"They're incredible people. Just absolutely incredible people."

Written by Padraig Moran. Interview with Myrna Arychuk and Ruslan Cholovskyy produced by Matt Meuse, with additional files by Padraig Moran.

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