“We knew we might not see each other again for years”: When this teacher fled Ukraine for Toronto, she had to leave her husband behind
The Voronka family had a peaceful life in Chernivtsi, Ukraine. Halyna, 41, ran her own school; her 45-year-old husband, Yuri, was a park manager; and their two sons, 15-year-old Bohdan and 10-year-old Yevhen, were picking up cycling and karate. But when the war began, Halyna made the heartwrenching decision to flee to Toronto with the boys, leaving both her home and her husband behind.
—As told to Ali Amad
“I grew up in Chernivtsi, a city in southwestern Ukraine. I always loved languages, particularly English, so I studied linguistics at a local prep school. After graduating, in 1998, I became an English teacher and later married Yuri, who works as a park manager.
“In 2006, my best friend from school, Zhanna, moved to Canada and asked if I wanted to join her. It was tempting. I’d always heard wonderful things about Canada’s beautiful landscapes and its diverse and welcoming people, and I had family in Winnipeg and Edmonton. It was exciting to fantasize about starting a new life there, but we ultimately decided to stay. I didn’t want to be so far from my parents, and I knew they would never want to leave their homeland.
“Instead, Yuri and I built a family in Chernivtsi. We had a son, Bohdan, and then another, Yevhen, five years later. In 2013, I opened an extra-curricular school that taught English, German and other subjects like math, physics and art. Over the years, the school grew to 10 teachers and approximately 100 students.
“We had a great life. Bohdan took up cycling; Yevhen became a green belt in karate. On Sundays, I’d take them to church. Yuri didn’t usually come with us—he’s not much of a church person—but, every Easter, he’d make an exception and join us. Those holidays were always memorable. After mass, we’d go back home for a big meal, all of us eating and laughing together.
“When Russia invaded Ukraine, our peaceful lives were completely upended. It was the day after my birthday, and I woke up early to send thank you messages to everyone who had wished me a happy birthday. But when I logged in to my social media, it was filled with terrible news. I frantically sent messages to friends asking if war had actually begun. They all said the same thing: the unthinkable had become a reality. We spent that surreal day in terror, watching the news, wondering if we were safe, and fearing that, at any moment, Chernivtsi could be bombed. I immediately shut down my school and shifted our classes online.
“That evening, my cousin in Kherson, a city in southern Ukraine that was being heavily attacked, messaged me. Fortunately, he was out of the country at the time, but he was worried about his business partner. He asked if I could host his partner’s family—they were fleeing the city and in desperate need of shelter. I agreed and they arrived the following day. Seeing the fear in their eyes frightened me deeply. You could see the brutal reality of war in their paranoia, in how they jumped out of their seats if they heard an unexpected loud noise. They begged us to bring them to safety if the war came to Chernivtsi. We knew that was a possibility. Yuri and I had a long discussion about our next move. We knew that fleeing the country would mean leaving Yuri behind; he was required to stay because of Ukraine’s martial law. Still, he told us we had to go. We didn’t want to put our sons in danger. We figured that it would be only temporary, that we’d see each other once the conflict had blown over.
“Chernivtisi is close to the Romanian border, and I had relatives in Timișoara, a city in western Romania. They didn’t have room to take us in, but they found someone nearby who was offering to house Ukrainian refugees. So, we packed some essentials into our car for the 700-kilometre journey. There were many tears as we hugged and said goodbye to Yuri.
“My sons and I spent 14 uncomfortable hours in line to cross the border, trying and failing to sleep within the confines of our car. Once we were in Romania, it felt like something heavy had been lifted off my chest. I was still worried for my husband, but it was a relief to know our sons were finally safe. When we arrived in Timișoara, we found that our host had left us a nice, clean apartment that was fully stocked with food.
“A few days after arriving in Romania, Zhanna called. She asked if I wanted to come to Canada and stay at her house in Mississauga. I was hesitant to make such a big move, so far away from my husband and parents. But Zhanna told me this was the perfect time to do it, that my sons would have a better future there. I called Yuri and he agreed. Even my mother, who was so opposed to me moving 16 years ago, supported the idea. She promised to visit us once the war was over. So, I told Zhanna that I would take her up on her offer.
“Zhanna works for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, so she has a lot of experience helping people like us. With her help, we spent the next few weeks applying for our visas and getting all the necessary documents. Once we were approved, we booked train tickets from Timișoara to Bucharest. From there, we would fly to Warsaw, and then on to Toronto.
“Before we left, we managed to see Yuri once more. In late March, my sons and I drove to the border and briefly crossed back into Ukraine. We met him in a café there. This time, the goodbye was different. We knew we wouldn’t see each other for months, maybe even years. My sons cried the entire time. It was difficult to stop hugging my husband, to separate and not hold him anymore. But I had to. We’d made a decision that would give our sons safety and a good life.
“On April 5, after nearly 24 hours of non-stop travel, we landed in Toronto. Zhanna and her family picked us up at the airport and took us to their home in Mississauga. Zhanna and her husband have two daughters that are about the same age as Yevhen, and she’s also taken in another old school friend from Chernivtsi: Alex, a widower who arrived with his two children the day before us. All together, there are 10 of us under the same roof.
“Zhanna helped me get a work permit and health card, and she enrolled my sons in Josyf Cardinal Slipyj Catholic School, the Ukrainian school her daughters attend. Their English isn’t very good yet, but children are like sponges. I’m sure they’ll pick it up quickly.
“I am so grateful for all of Zhanna’s help—without her, none of this would have been possible. But I’m also conscious of how much we’ve disrupted her family’s life. She is devoting all of her free time to us, and I know that can’t be easy for her daughters. I am focused on securing a place of our own as soon as possible, and I’m currently applying for jobs. I’d like to continue working as a teacher, but I’m keeping my options open.
“When I’m not job hunting, I work on the virtual curriculum for my school in Chernivtsi. I can’t help but feel like I betrayed my faculty and students when I locked the doors and left them behind.
“My husband and parents are still safe in Chernivtsi, which has avoided the devastation that has plagued much of Ukraine. Yuri isn’t working his normal job right now, so he’s helping to manage the school’s finances. I call him and my parents every day, and we talk about when we’ll see each other, about our hopes for the end of the war.
“Recently, I celebrated Easter with my sons and the families we are staying with. It was nice to preserve that tradition in our new country, but it wasn’t the same without Yuri and my family back in Ukraine. I don’t know when I’ll return. I dream of our country flourishing again, but who knows when that will happen. Dreams are good, but I have to live in reality. What I know for sure is that my sons will have a brighter future here in Canada, and that’s what matters most.”