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Memoir

“We ran for cover as the air raid sirens blared”: A retiree on his week-long journey out of Ukraine

By Leonid Markunin| Photography by Ian Brown
“We ran for cover as the air raid sirens blared”: A retiree on his week-long journey out of Ukraine
Leonid Markunin and his wife, Liana Markunina, pictured in Toronto.

Leonid Markunin, a 65-year-old retiree, lived with his wife, Liana, near the beach in Odessa, Ukraine. When the city came under attack, the couple began a tense week-long trip to Toronto that included several bus rides, flights and anxiety-inducing delays. Through a translator, Markunin retraced the couple’s dramatic escape.

—As told to Jared Lindzon


“Odessa is the only home I know. I was born there in 1956, when it was still part of the Soviet Union. My family is Jewish, and I was lucky my parents survived World War II. My father was just 17 when he joined the Red Army to fight the Nazis; an injury he sustained in battle meant that he ended up a disabled veteran. His father went missing during the war, and my mother was the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust.

“As a young man, I worked as a design engineer. But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1993, everything shut down and I needed to find new work. A friend helped me get a job managing a bookstore, where I stayed for the next 25 years.

“During that time, I got married to Liana, a half-Georgian, half-Russian architect from Odessa, and we had two sons. Our younger boy, a talented illustrator, moved to Newfoundland to pursue a degree in animation and eventually enrolled at Sheridan College in Toronto. Our older son, who worked as a professional translator and English professor in Odessa, joined him in Toronto in 2015. Liana and I missed them, but we decided to stay in Odessa. We loved our hometown. I retired five years ago, and we lived in a beautiful apartment not far from the beach. It’s always been a peaceful city. Then the war began—and the peace ended.

“In late February, we heard the sounds of bombs and anti-aircraft missiles in the distance. I knew we had to leave the place where I grew up, met my wife and raised my children. It was painful for us, but we didn’t have a choice. Liana, who is now 64, is a cancer survivor, and she’s still very weak from her chemotherapy treatments. We didn’t know if she would have the strength to withstand the journey, but we needed to get somewhere where she would have access to health care. The only thing that kept her going was the thought of seeing our boys. We hadn’t seen them in five years.

“We managed to get two seats on a bus out of Odessa through Khesed Shaarey Tsion, a Jewish organization that helps seniors in our community. Our boys told us that if we made it to Bucharest, the nearest international airport, they would buy us plane tickets to Toronto. Leaving, however, would mean saying goodbye to my mother, a 93-year-old Holocaust survivor. That hurt the most. Because of her age, she couldn’t evacuate with us, so we left her in the hands of social workers in Odessa and told her that we’d stay in touch every day.

“As we left our home on the morning of March 2, I noticed there wasn’t a single car left in the parking lot outside our apartment building, and almost all of the windows were dark—most people had already left. We arrived at the bus stop at 11 a.m. and spent six hours waiting in the bitter cold and rain. We had to run for cover on three separate occasions as air raid sirens blared. Luckily, the area where we were waiting remained safe. Still, when the busses finally showed up, there was a panic. People rushed to get on board. The vehicles were packed with people and what few belongings they could take with them.

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“Everyone on the bus was scared. More sirens sounded as we left, and kids were crying. The 58-kilometre journey to the border, which normally lasts one hour, took more than four. At nearly every crossroad, the Ukrainian army inspected our vehicle. We tried to manage our anxiety, but we knew access out of the city would soon be cut off. If we didn’t get out then, we feared we’d never see our children and grandchildren again.

“Twenty kilometres away from the border into Palanca, a small village in Moldova, we encountered a lineup of cars. Everyone was trying to get out of the country. Fortunately, Shaarei Zion had spoken to the Israeli consulate in Ukraine and arranged for police to provide our bus an escort to the border. Without them, we would not have been able to cross.

“When we arrived at the border it was 8 p.m. We got off the bus and joined a line of thousands of people, most of them seniors, women and children, all waiting in the freezing cold to be processed. We spent the entire night standing there. Six hours later, we finally crossed. We had escaped Ukraine, but our journey was far from over.

“At around 3 a.m. on March 3 we boarded a bus to Chișinău, the capital of Moldova. By this point, tensions were extremely high. People hadn’t slept or eaten properly in days, and they were desperately trying to get on a bus as soon as they could. After a three-and-a-half-hour journey we reached our destination, only to be told by local officials to get in yet another line for a bus to Bucharest. We stood in the cold for another five or six hours, but at least we were given warm food by a group of local volunteers. It was the first full meal we had eaten since we left Odessa. After seven hours on the bus we arrived in Bucharest, where we were finally able to get a hotel room. For the first time in three days, we slept in a bed.

“A few days later, our son bought us tickets to Toronto via Frankfurt. We arrived at the airport in Bucharest at 3 a.m., paid 250 euros for two Covid tests, and boarded our plane. I was so relieved that we were on our way. But due to a mechanical issue, the plane wasn’t able to depart until noon. By the time we arrived in Frankfurt, our connecting flight had already left, and our Covid tests had expired. Luckily, officials in Frankfurt tested us for free after learning that we were from Ukraine. Every test brought more anxiety, because if we were positive, we would not be able to board. Fortunately, we were negative, and the next day we flew to Toronto.

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“Our sons were waiting for us when we arrived at Pearson. We started crying as soon as we saw them. We had done our best to stay strong throughout the journey, but seeing them, the emotion hit us.

“Life here has not been easy, and our future is still uncertain. We were advised not to apply for refugee status until the government offers an immigration sponsorship program specifically for Ukrainian parents of Canadian citizens. Our son has tried to bring us to Canada through the family sponsorship program twice in the last two years, which works on a lottery system, but we were not selected either time. So far, we only have visitors’ visas, and we do not qualify for OHIP.

“If we had left during peacetime, we could have sold our apartment and car to build a new life and help our children. Instead, we came here with nothing. For now, we are living with our younger son in his small apartment in Glen Park. Our elder son, meanwhile, is housing his Ukrainian in-laws. I know they cannot afford to feed all of us by themselves, and our combined pensions only bring in about $120 per month.

“I can’t help but feel a sense of hopelessness, a lack of control. I’ve never been one to ask for help, but now I need help with my resettlement in Canada, because I can’t handle it all by myself. The Jewish Immigrant Aid Services has connected us to a few resources, and they may eventually provide other supports like health insurance and TTC passes. They also referred us to the Kehilla Residential Programme, which offers affordable housing to Toronto’s Jewish community. We applied for a one-bedroom apartment and are waiting to hear back.

“Liana and I still live with the fear and anxiety of the war. Every time we hear a loud noise we jump, expecting some sort of explosion; it’s usually just construction. We’re still not sure how long we can stay in Canada, or whether we will be able to access health care. Our hope is that the government will provide a special family sponsorship program, but at this point we’re not sure whether they will. What keeps us strong is the opportunity to be together with our family. We gave our sons everything they needed to succeed in life. Now, all we’re asking for is permission to stay here with them, because we don’t know what will be left of our beloved hometown once the war is over.”

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