Advertisement
Memoir

“I long to see my husband again”: Inside one family’s heartbreaking decision to flee Ukraine

By Anna Gutta-Ustymenko| Photography by Ian Brown
“I long to see my husband again”: Inside one family’s heartbreaking decision to flee Ukraine
Anna Gutta-Ustymenko (centre) with her mother, Iryna, and daughter, Veronika, in Aurora.

Anna Gutta-Ustymenko was living in Kyiv with her husband, Mykola, and their 11-year-old daughter, Veronika. When Russia invaded, she faced an impossible choice: keep her family together in an unsafe country, or flee without Mykola, who was required by martial law to stay in Ukraine. Here, she recounts the difficult decision to leave her home and husband behind.

—As told to Ali Amad


“In 2004, I left my hometown of Lviv and moved to Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, where I met the man who would become my husband. Mykola was an automotive engineer, and I was a marketer for a competing car company, so we were technically rivals. But I was impressed by his professionalism and loved his wonderful sense of humour. We got married in 2007 and had a daughter, Veronika, three years later.

“Our family had a good life in Kyiv. We’d go skiing in the winter, visit the majestic Carpathian Mountains in the west and travel to the beautiful Black Sea in the south. Our favourite pastime was the simple pleasure of cooking together on the weekends. Veronika excelled at school, Mykola embarked on a new career in IT and business consulting, and I transitioned into a career as a writer. Not long ago, I developed a fondness for baking and decorating cakes and desserts. I even wrote a cookbook called Legends About Dishes With a Ukrainian Accent, which shares the recipes and stories behind the country’s best dishes.

“This past February, I was in the process of publishing my cookbook when Russia’s military attacked Kyiv. It was a horrible day. Many parts of the city were shelled and numerous buildings were destroyed. Thankfully, our home was untouched, but we knew it wasn’t safe for us to stay. I was especially concerned about my mother, Iryna, who was living alone on the outskirts of the city. She’d recently had a hip replacement and needed to have regular checkups.

“That night, I got a call from my brother, whose name is also Mykola. He moved to Canada in 2009 and lives in Aurora with his wife, Kateryna, and three sons, Leo, Sasha and David. He insisted that we evacuate out of Kyiv as soon as possible and told us he’d house us if we could make our way to Canada. We quickly hatched a plan to return to Lviv, then board a bus to Kraków, in southern Poland. From there, we’d fly to Toronto.

“Two days later, we picked up my mother and made for Lviv. We took only our documents, family photos and my cookbook manuscript. We left behind so many of our possessions and valuables: books, clothes and more. None of that mattered to me because I was preoccupied with something else: we would have to leave my husband behind, too. As part of Ukraine’s martial law, men between 18 and 60 were required to remain in the country in case they were needed to fight. Before we boarded our bus in Lviv, we tried to stay positive and share our hopes of reuniting one day, but it was so hard. We hugged and kissed him and wept in each other’s arms. I told him to stay alive, no matter what. The last thing he said to me was to take care of our daughter. He and Veronika have always been inseparable, so saying goodbye was especially hard for her. From the moment we boarded the bus to the moment we crossed the border two days later, she didn’t stop crying.

“The line of cars, buses and trucks trying to enter Poland from western Ukraine extended for dozens of kilometres. Our bus was filled with women and young children, many of whom were also in tears. At first, we ate food we’d bought in Lviv: sandwiches, crackers and apples. When we ran out of supplies, we bought whatever we could get from a nearby gas station. Time went by so slowly—it felt like we would never arrive at the border checkpoint. The wait was especially hard for my mother. Sitting for long stretches was incredibly painful and uncomfortable for her—she had to take painkillers to help her cope. It was difficult to sleep because there was no room to lie down, and because we were all stressed. We didn’t know if we were safe. My brother stayed awake, too, constantly monitoring the news and social media for any indication that the Russians might attack Lviv or Poland.

Advertisement

“After 50 hours on the bus, we finally crossed the border. In Poland, there were volunteers waiting for us, and they gave us hot food and phone chargers. I immediately called my husband to let him know we were in Poland. For the next week, we stayed with some friends who lived near Rzeszów, a city in southeast Poland.

“In early March, we flew from Kraków to Warsaw, and then on to Toronto. After nearly four hours in customs at Pearson, we reunited with my brother. It felt wonderful to hug him—we’d last seen him when he visited us in Ukraine six months earlier, when the idea of a Russian invasion seemed impossible.

“I long to see my husband again”: Inside one family’s heartbreaking decision to flee Ukraine
Iryna, Anna and Veronika with Mykola, Kateryna and two of their sons.

“My brother’s house has three bedrooms, so it’s a bit crammed with eight people. But my mother, daughter and I are comfortable in the basement, and we are happy to be so close to my brother’s family. It’s great that Veronika has cousins to play with. It’s devastating that my husband can’t be here, too, and I worry about him every minute of the day, but I’ve tried to focus on helping Veronika adapt to her new life; her first day at school in Aurora was right after March break.

“I applied for a Canadian work permit two days after our arrival, but I’m still waiting for my application to get approved. I’m 43 years old with a wealth of experience in writing, marketing and advertising, and my hopes are to find a job in PR or HR because I enjoy working with people. I’d like to improve my English, because I want to be useful to Canada and its people. I also hope to publish my cookbook in Canada, in both Ukrainian and English. After I get a job, I want to start looking for a home for my mother, daughter and me, but housing is very expensive here.

“We have received a wonderful welcome from the Canadian government and Ukrainian organizations in the GTA. Ivanka Tymchuk, a community outreach coordinator with the Canadian Ukrainian Immigrant Aid Society, is helping me enrol in English courses and get a SIN, driver’s licence and health care. We have made many friends in Canada—including Evgenia Semenchuk, Diana Glozman, Veronika Tarantina and Yuliana Hladysh—through Ukrainian-Canadian Facebook groups, and they’ve given us so much useful information and advice. We are also grateful for the moral support of Father Petro Anhel, Victoria Tryfan, Lyuba and all the community at the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Archangel Michael in Bradford, Ontario.

Advertisement

“My family prays that peace will return to our country, and that we will all return and reunite with my husband. We speak to him twice every day—once in the morning and again in the evening—to share our news and to make sure he is safe. He is spending his days helping other refugees settle in Lviv. He’s keeping his promise to me to stay alive. Fortunately, he hasn’t been called for military service yet, but it is a possibility.

“If the conflict lasts for a long time, we might seek permanent residency in Canada. Hopefully, my husband can then join us. I long to see him again. It was so hard to leave him and our home, relatives and friends behind. But I know that wherever we go, Ukraine will always be in our hearts. It will always be our home.”

NEVER MISS A TORONTO LIFE STORY

Sign up for This City, our free newsletter about everything that matters right now in Toronto politics, sports, business, culture, society and more.

By signing up, you agree to our terms of use and privacy policy.
You may unsubscribe at any time.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Advertisement
Advertisement

The Latest

House of the Week: $6.9 million for a reno off Leslie with a jazz bar
Real Estate

House of the Week: $6.9 million for a reno off Leslie with a jazz bar