“They can stay as long as they need”: This woman took in a family of strangers from Ukraine

By Catherine Mack| Photography by Jared Brookes
“They can stay as long as they need”: This woman took in a family of strangers from Ukraine

A century ago, Catherine Mack’s ancestors emigrated from Ukraine to Canada. Today, Mack, a 56-year-old real estate agent, lives in Oshawa with her 22-year-old son, Zack. When war broke out in February, she posted an offer to host a Ukrainian family in her three-bedroom bungalow. Several weeks later, four strangers moved in.

—As told to Ali Amad

The day the war started will stick in my mind for the rest of my life. I’d never experienced a panic attack before, but thinking about the death and destruction in Ukraine had me frozen in fear for hours. My son, Zack, tried to console me, but nothing he did could snap me out of this deep feeling of powerlessness. I’ve never had a particularly strong connection with my Ukrainian roots, but I knew right away that I had to do something. I searched Facebook to find ways to help and came across numerous posts from Ukrainians seeking a host in Canada.

I posted on Facebook and a website called Ukraine Take Shelter, inviting families to stay at my three-bedroom bungalow in Oshawa. In mid-March, I got an email from a 31-year-old Ukrainian single mom named Yana. She’d fled the city of Kryvyi Rih—the hometown of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy—with her 10-year-old daughter, Viktoriia; her eight-year-old son, Oleh; and her 52-year-old mother, Liudmyla.

Kryvyi Rih is located in central Ukraine, and it was bombarded constantly. The family spent several nights huddled together in a bomb shelter. Yana was concerned her mother would be in grave danger if the Russians captured the city. Liudmyla was a politically active university professor and vocal critic of Putin, and the family heard rumours that prominent Ukrainians speaking out against the war were being targeted by the Russian military. Yana decided to get her children and mother out of Ukraine as soon as there was a lull in the bombing, even though that meant leaving the men in her family behind: Yana’s father was fighting in a nearby town, and her 80-year-old grandfather refused to leave.

In early March, the family took a car west to Poland and spent four days at the border crossing. Once they entered Poland, they made their way to a refugee camp that had been set up in a soccer stadium. Eventually, they found a place to stay in Kraków, and that’s when Yana found my post on Ukraine Take Shelter.

“They can stay as long as they need”: This woman took in a family of strangers from Ukraine
Catherine Mack offered her home to refugee families through the website Ukraine Take shelter. Photograph courtesy of Catherine Mack

Yana told me she wanted to bring her children to Canada to offer them a better life. She had a successful career in IT back in Ukraine and wanted to find work in the GTA. We had a video call on Telegram—I barely knew a word of Ukrainian, but Yana could speak in broken English. She seemed innocent and trustworthy. And yet, there was still a part of me that wondered, “Is this for real?” Friends warned me about scammers and said I needed to be extra careful. But I decided to go with my gut. I told Yana her family was welcome to stay with me in Oshawa.

With everything moving so quickly, I neglected to include my son in the decision-making process. Zack’s first reaction was shock. He was worried that hosting the family would turn our lives upside down, but I assured him that we could handle it together.

After all the initial excitement, nothing happened for weeks. The family’s visa application process seemed to drag on interminably until, just after midnight on April 13, I got a message from Yana. They had been approved and would be arriving in Toronto the following day.

Zack and I spent the next 24 hours scrambling to buy and assemble four beds in our rec room, which was the only spare space big enough to fit the entire family. I also bought everything I thought they’d need: clothes, shampoo, deodorant, toys.

The following night, Yana and her family arrived at Pearson. Any uncertainty I had disappeared when we all embraced. I instantly knew I could trust them. It also hit me how much trust they’d placed in me. They’d left everything behind to move to a foreign country and stay in the home of a complete stranger. They must have felt so vulnerable, so I vowed to make them feel as welcome as possible. We got in my car, where I had some pillows and blankets, as well as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and we drove to Oshawa.

At first, their trauma was quite visible. Any loud noise, even if it was just Zack’s alarm or a plane flying overhead, would cause Oleh and Viktoriia—her family calls her Vika for short—to jump. Vika is still coming out of her shell; I don’t hug her without asking first. Yana was paranoid that Oleh and Vika would do something to upset me and that I’d kick them all out. It took several conversations to reassure her that they would always be welcome here, even if the kids somehow managed to wreck the entire house.

It’s been wonderful to see Oleh and Vika settle in. Oleh has always wanted a dog, and I own two: Jesse and Riley, both Brittanys. Yana didn’t tell him, so that it would be a surprise when they arrived. Oleh and the dogs have become inseparable ever since. I’ve also made sure the kids have tons of toys. I took Oleh and Vika to a dollar store, gave them each a cart, and told them they could load it up with anything they wanted. I felt this was important for their independence; it’s nice to be able to choose your own toys, instead of being given handouts. I also emptied out my backyard shed and told them it could be their playhouse. I handed them some paint and gave them carte blanche to do whatever they wanted. They’ve had a blast in there.

“They can stay as long as they need”: This woman took in a family of strangers from Ukraine
Oleh with one of Mack’s dogs

The community has been incredibly welcoming of Yana and her family. Locals have sent over lots of donations: Costco deliveries, dinners, art supplies, gift cards, even new bikes for Vika and Oleh. A nearby tutor is also giving the children free English lessons twice a week, and their speaking and comprehension have already improved.

Now that the kids are enrolled in a local school, I’m helping Yana and Liudmyla get jobs. Liudmyla will need to be re-certified to teach in Canada. I used to work in IT, so I was able to connect Yana with a mentor at Deloitte who is trying to help her find work. She’s also sent her resume to contacts I have at companies like IBM.

I’m still surprised by the profound impact hosting this family has had on me. In such a short time, they’ve become an integral part of my life, and we share our ups and downs together. Their pain is now my pain. We don’t cry in front of the kids, but it’s not unusual for Liudmyla and I to burst into tears as we talk about her husband and father. The family’s strength has become my strength, too. I’m amazed on a daily basis by their resolve. I don’t know if I could do what they’ve done with such grace and kindness.

This experience has been rewarding for Zack as well. After his early hesitation, he rose marvellously to the challenge. He’s constantly helping the family with errands and chores around the house. Without any prompting from me, he also bought the kids stuffed animals with interchangeable happy and sad faces, which are designed to help traumatized children express their feelings. Zack noticed that Oleh is lacking male companionship, so the other day, he took Oleh out for some ice cream. It’s nice to see them bond.

“They can stay as long as they need”: This woman took in a family of strangers from Ukraine
Liudmyla and Vika in Mack’s backyard

When I broached the subject of returning to Ukraine, Yana and Liudmyla were realistic. In their hearts, they don’t believe there will be anything left for them back home. Yana doesn’t even know if her apartment is still standing. We don’t know what the future will bring, but I think they’re here to stay. Eventually, they want to find their own place, but I told them they can stay here for as long as they need. I expect to celebrate Christmas with them.

Shortly before Yana’s family arrived, I started posting on Facebook to thank people for their donations. I didn’t mean for it to be anything more than that, but Yana and I decided to keep posting about her family’s experience here. She wants the focus to remain on Ukraine and the aftermath of the war, because she’s worried people will forget or get fatigued from reading about it. That’s the purpose of our blog: we’re hoping our journey together will inspire people to host more Ukrainians, or to help in whatever way they can. When you’re a host, you get back far more than you put in, often in unexpected ways. I feel like I’ve gained a second family from this experience. I sincerely hope we’re connected forever.


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