EDITOR’S NOTE: Welcome to the first of a five-part series highlighting the work of the Ukraine Nightingale Project and some of the families it’s helping right here in the South Okanagan.
By Mark Brett, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Until last year, Oleg Varnystka had never held a gun but he now carries an AK-47 and risks his life on the front lines to defend his Ukrainian homeland.
Fortunately six months ago his wife Vitalina Varnytska and their children, daughter Vlada, 17, and son Ustym, 15, managed to escape their war-torn country.
The family’s travel itinerary out of their country reads like this: in the Ukraine, Kyiv to Lviv to Ternopil, then to Poland, to the Czech Republic, Austria.
They arrived in Canada at Drummondville, Que., before moving to Vancouver, Port Moody and finally Penticton.
Under the current state of martial law in Ukraine, Oleg had no choice but to stay behind, however, according to his wife, he would have stayed regardless of his military conscription.
“Of course I am worried about him but it is important to him because it is our land and Russians kill people, Ukrainian people, women and children,” said Vitalina who along with her children speak to Oleg sporadically when he has cell phone service available. “We know our history and we know how it will be if Russians take Ukraine. Maybe more people will die than live.”
Before she left, her husband told her the war is not going to be over quickly and it was too dangerous for she and their children to remain.
She recalled the fears she felt for her own life and. more importantly, the lives of their children as the ground and air attacks continued day and night near their home in Kyiv, the country’s capital.
“I see a big tank, I see a lot of people who were gone, Ukrainian people not Russian people,” said Vitalina. “I see airplanes in the sky. I see bombs. I listen every day, many times for the sounds of those bombs.”
For her the nights were the worst, “Then we sleep not at home. We sleep in a big room under a house where many people hide. It was so cold and wet and my daughter was crying. We had to leave.”
However, getting away was not simple.
“It was very dangerous. Volunteers moved me and my children to a train station. Very many people, so many people,” said Vitalina. “We found an electric train and we had to stand for the 12 hours, we drove to the west part of Ukraine.”
They even took their pet hamster, Mouse, with them but he had to stay behind with family members in Ukraine.
Coming to a new land for mother and children was not easy — especially leaving Oleg behind with such an uncertain future.
Once in Canada, Vitalina also had to worry about day-to-day life: putting food on the table, a roof over their heads and education for her kids who are now attending Princess Margaret Secondary School.
Having escaped with little more than the clothes on their backs, the family struggled financially.
When Vitalina realized she was running out of money she reached out to Jennifer Martison of the Ukraine Nightingale Project (UNP).
The UNP is an organization Martison formed late last year to provide support needed by displaced Ukrainian families to start a new life in the South Okanagan.
She quickly came to the aid of the Varnystka family, helping Vitalina find a full-time job and part-time employment for the kids, among other things.
In addition, she helped them with government matters and even aided daughter Vlada with her application to the Emily Carr University of Art and Design.
“I have nothing but respect for this woman (Vitalina), she’s unbelievably strong and I’m amazed she is holding it together as well she is,” said Martison. “She’s very independent. I almost have to force stuff on her. She’s really proud and really doesn’t want to take too much. Gotta respect that.”
For her part Vitalina struggles to find the words to express her appreciation to Jennifer and the many others who have helped her family since arriving in this country.
“I couldn’t live in Canada without these people, I couldn’t,” she said. “There’s so many good people asking me what I need. Without these people we would really have nothing.”
Vlada agreed: “Everyone from Canada is so very nice. I really like it here.”
She admits when she first got here it was a struggle, especially with the language, but that has improved and she’s enjoying her time now.
While things are improving, the family’s hearts and prayers are thousands of kilometres away in their embattled homeland with the man they love.
Overwhelming support for Ukraine Nightingale Project
Since she started the Ukraine Nightingale Project, Jennifer Martison has been overwhelmed by the generous support of the community.
That includes everything from in-kind and financial donations to people providing accommodations for those coming to the South Okanagan to escape the war in the Ukraine.
As just one example she pointed to Skaha Ford dealer Brad Jinjoe who stepped up to the plate when he learned from his service technician, Dave Balzer, that Vitalina Varnystka’s vehicle was in need of repairs.
He allowed Balzer and the other technicians, who donated their time and paid for the parts, to use the dealership’s facilities.
Not long ago Vitalina had a flat tire and Skaha Ford and Jinjoe again came to the rescue putting four new tires on the car donated $300 to the family.
“We’re in a position to help and I truly believe that’s our responsibility, our duty,” said Jinjoe.
“Their husband and father is on the front line and the family comes here, I don’t know how you can say, ‘no I’m not going to help.’
“It’s not something we here can imagine. I hope to God we never have to.”