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Memoir

“I just want to have breakfast without the fear of bombing”: How a Ukrainian family reconnected with an old friend to escape the war

By Toronto Life| Photography by Ian Brown
"I just want to have breakfast without the fear of bombing": How a Ukrainian family reconnected with an old friend to escape the war

Ksenia and Mykola Khytsenko met as teenagers at a summer camp for orphans in Ukraine. They built a life together in Bucha, where they raised two children, Ivan and Uliana. When the war started, they reconnected with Alla Galych, a former volunteer with the charity that ran the camp for orphans, and hatched a plan to get their family out of Ukraine.

—As told to Ali Amad


Ksenia Khytsenko: I’m an orphan from Sevastopol, a city in Crimea. I had a difficult childhood, with no family to support or care for me. As a teenager, I attended a summer camp for orphans run by a Ukrainian-Canadian charity called Help Us Help. That was where I met Mykola, an orphan from Sumy Oblast in northeast Ukraine.

Mykola Khytsenko: We kept running into each other over the years. At an orphans’ event in our later teen years, Ksenia was a volunteer and I was a DJ. Help Us Help got us both scholarships to attend the same university near Kyiv, so we saw each other around campus. Gradually, we fell in love.

Alla Galych: I started Help Us Help’s scholarship program, and I first met Ksenia and Mykola when they were applying for university. I was struck by how driven and hard-working they both were. Despite all the challenges life had presented them, they shared a desire to build successful careers and a strong family together. As they got older, they started volunteering with Help Us Help, assisting orphans who were in the position that they were once in. After I moved to the U.S. and then Canada in 2012, I kept in touch with them.

Ksenia: Mykola and I got married in 2012 and moved to Mukachevo, a small city in the mountains of western Ukraine. Mykola got a job as a salesman in the gas and oil industry. I worked in tax administration for the government until our son Ivan—we call him Vanya—was born in 2013.

Mykola: When Vanya was about 10 months old, we started noticing he was having developmental issues. He couldn’t say simple words like “mama” or “papa,” and he wasn’t interested in or capable of assembling toy blocks. A doctor in Kyiv diagnosed him with autism, so we bought an apartment in Bucha, a city just outside of Kyiv, to be closer to specialists who could help him. Ksenia quit her job to care for him around the clock. Our beautiful daughter, Uliana, was born in 2016.

Ksenia: We faced many difficulties as Vanya grew up. While the Ukrainian government had programs and supports for people with autism, Ukrainian society in general lacked—and continues to lack—an acceptance and understanding of autistic children. At daycare, Vanya was bullied by other kids; even their parents petitioned the daycare to stop Vanya from attending. They saw our son as a problem, a nuisance.

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Mykola: We enrolled Vanya in a special school that had a small class of autistic kids, which helped, and we considered moving to Canada, because we knew autistic kids were accepted and integrated into society there. But we had a good life in Ukraine and I had a decent job, so we didn’t want to leave our home.

Ksenia: As Vanya got older, he developed a love for drawing, swimming and music. He dabbles a bit in piano and will often request Beethoven or Chopin. As for Uliana, she loves to dance. She started taking ballet classes and participated in a wonderful performance earlier this year, right before the start of the war.

Mykola: In our hearts and minds, we all knew Russia would attack Ukraine at some point. But we expected the war to happen in eastern Ukraine, where many of the Russian separatists were. We never could have imagined that Russia would attack the rest of the country. Then, early one morning in late February, we woke up to the sound of car alarms, caused by vibrations from bombs landing several kilometres away.

Ksenia: That afternoon, Vanya was out on the balcony and started shouting, pointing at Russian fighter jets flying overhead. The incredibly loud sound terrified us. We were worried our neighbourhood would be bombed next, and we knew we couldn’t hide in our building’s basement—Vanya gets anxious in confined spaces—so we decided to leave.

Mykola: I contacted an old work friend in Mukachevo, who offered to host us at his apartment until the war ended. We packed a suitcase with some clothes and our documents and drove west. The drive normally takes a day, but because the roads were packed with people fleeing Kyiv, the journey lasted three days. Our host also took in three other families—there were 16 people living in a three-room apartment. It was cramped, but at least we were safe.

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Ksenia: As we watched the terrible news of the invasion, we tried to figure out our next step. We considered renting an apartment in Mukachevo, but there were no vacancies. We also debated finding a European country that could take us in as refugees. Then we remembered Alla.

Alla: By that time, I had moved to Etobicoke with my husband, Vitali, and our two daughters, Sofia and Anna. I was born in Ukraine, and most of my husband’s family lived there, as did my brother, who has three small children. So, the morning after Russia launched its attack, I teamed up other Ukrainian-Canadians across the GTA through a Facebook group called Ukraine Medical Assist to collect food and medical supplies and send them to bombing victims Ukraine. In early March, I got a message from Ksenia.

Ksenia: Alla and I spoke over video call late one night. I had to take the call in the bathroom and whisper so that I didn’t disturb any of the other families we were staying with. After reassuring Alla that we were all safe, I asked her: can you host us in your home in Canada?

Alla: I said yes right away. We hadn’t seen each other since 2014, when I visited them in Kyiv, but they are like family to me. I told her, “Whatever you need, I’m here to help.”

Mykola: I will never forget what Alla did for us. She sent a letter to the Canadian government, informing them that we were old friends and that she was willing to host us in her home. Because I was the sole provider for my family and I had a son with disabilities, I was exempt from the martial law that required fighting-age men to stay in Ukraine.

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Ksenia: Our visa application required us to book a biometrics appointment so that we could provide things like our fingerprints. The nearest available appointment was in Vienna in mid-March. The war showed no signs of slowing down, so we booked the appointment and made arrangements to head to Austria. We first crossed the border into Slovakia by bus. We then took a train to Vienna, where we went to our appointment, rented an apartment and waited.

Mykola: It took nearly a month of appointments and filling out paperwork to get our visas, but it was worth the wait. We took a train to Paris and then, a few days later, flew to Toronto.

Ksenia: When we landed at Pearson on April 2, we immediately got lost. Luckily, we met a Ukrainian mother with two small children. Between us, we knew enough English to navigate the airport. Then we finally found Alla, who was draped in a Ukrainian flag.

"I just want to have breakfast without the fear of bombing": How a Ukrainian family reconnected with an old friend to escape the war
The Khytsenko family arriving at Pearson. Photograph by Alla Galych

Alla: I’m not an emotional person, but seeing Mykola and Ksenia and their two wonderful children in person brought tears to my eyes. I felt relieved that at least this one piece of Ukraine could be kept safe.

Mykola: Alla has a lovely home in a quiet part of Etobicoke that is filled with Ukrainian families. There’s a Ukrainian school across the street. I couldn’t think of a better place to stay during our first days in Canada.

Alla: There were eight of us in my three-bedroom townhouse, but we were happy to be together. Of course, we wanted to find a job for Mykola and a place for the family to call their own. I reached out to my contacts in the Ukrainian-Canadian community to ask for help, and one woman invited the family to stay at her cottage near Peterborough, free of charge. It was incredible.

"I just want to have breakfast without the fear of bombing": How a Ukrainian family reconnected with an old friend to escape the war
Alla Galych (centre) with the Khytsenko family in her Etobicoke townhouse.

Mykola: We moved to the cottage a week after arriving in Canada. And with Alla’s help, I found a job. A Ukrainian-Canadian man in Peterborough hired me at his window-installation company. I knew nothing about window installation, but he offered to train me. There’s still a lot of work to be done. We need to find a school for our children. I need to get an Ontario driver’s licence so I can buy a car. Because we are coming from Ukraine, we have no credit history, so landlords are unwilling to lease us an apartment even though we have some savings. We even got rejected when we applied for a credit card the other day.

Ksenia: But our situation is much better than that of many Ukrainians scattered around the world. We are saddened by what has happened to our country. Our old university near Kyiv and much of the area around it has been destroyed. Our daughter’s school has been bombed, too. We aren’t even sure if our apartment and our possessions are still there.

Alla: All we can do now is hope that the war will stop and that Ukraine’s people will get their lives back. I’m hoping my brother and his family can join us here—he is exempt from military service because he has a medical condition. But they’ve decided to remain for now because my brother has a deep connection with Ukraine and can’t imagine leaving. Right now, I’m focused on supporting more Ukrainian newcomers, helping them find accommodations and work. There’s only so much one person can do, but I’d rather do the little I can than stand by helplessly.

Mykola: I don’t think we will ever live in Ukraine again, whether the war ends soon or not. We want to create a better future for our children and we can’t see ourselves living anywhere else. We have the support of Alla and many Ukrainian-Canadians like her. I am confident that Vanya will thrive in Canada, where society will accept him for who he is.

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Ksenia: As for me, I simply want to have breakfast with my family without fear of bombing and death. It doesn’t seem like much, but when you go through a war, all you want is a normal life.

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