Two sisters from Ukraine are reunited in Red Deer after overcoming harrowing circumstances.
In March, Iryna Pryimachenko fled her homeland with her husband, three young daughters and her mother, amid the panic-stricken chaos and explosions caused by the Russian invasion.
After a perilous journey along backed-up highways and a month spent as refugees in Poland, the exhausted Pryimachenko family arrived to Canada at the end of March.
Meanwhile, younger sister, Nataliia Serbin, had been living a peaceful life in central Alberta since signing a contract to work at the Olymel pork processing plant in 2012.
Serbin was shocked to see the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine unfold on television. Anxious for family members back in Kyiv, Serbin ended up paying $7,000 for airline tickets to bring her mother and sister’s family to Canada and safety.
This week Serbin, 38, acted as a translator for Pryimachenko as her older sister recounted the hardships her family and other Ukrainians have endured since the first Russian tanks rolled across their border.
At 5 a.m. on Feb. 24, Pryimachenko was awakened by a noise that sounded like something very heavy falling in the street. The 43-year-old university ecology professor didn’t see anything unusual, so went back to sleep — but was woken again by sirens and more explosions at 7 a.m.
“We couldn’t figure out what was going on,” she said.
Although a Russian invasion was alluded to for weeks, “nobody wanted to believe this was happening,” she added. “We thought, let’s wait and see… then we turned on the TV and saw the president’s address.”
As reality quickly sunk in, Pryimachenko and her children, alarmed by the bombs and explosions, packed small backpacks and headed down into Kyiv’s subway system, where many other people were also sheltering.
Meanwhile, her husband spent hours in a massive fuel line-up with others who were also preparing vehicles to flee. (Although most men in Ukraine are fighting Russians and are not allowed to leave, fathers of three or more children or disabled kids are allowed to leave Ukraine to help their families resettle.)
Before the invasion, the Pryimachenko family had been renovating a new three-bedroom apartment in Kyiv, where they were intending to move from their cramped one-bedroom flat.
But after seeing army tanks and large buildings destroyed from her fifth-floor apartment, Pryimachenko said she and her husband knew they had to leave nearly everything behind to get their children to safety.
On Feb. 26, the family loaded backpacks, documents, and their cat Kiki into the car and started travelling towards Pryimachenko’s mother’s village.
This major highway, heading towards the Polish border, was blocked up with slow-moving traffic and tanks. What should have been a three-hour trip to her mother’s place in Novo Grad Volinsky took 11 hours, said Pryimachenko, who had to suppress tears so as not to further upset her children.
All of her pent-up emotions were finally released in a three-week crying jag after the family arrived in Canada on March 28, she recalled.
But first, the Pryimachenkos had to show documents, in a tense exchange with armed Ukrainian soldiers at the border of Poland. Their anxieties eased as the family was warmly welcomed by Polish people they had only met through Facebook.
This family was truly wonderful, said Pryimachenko. Their Polish helpers provided them with shelter in their basement and food for nearly a month, until arrangements could be made for them to join Serbin in Canada.
A small heartbreak was experienced when their cat Kiki was left behind in Poland until all required documentation and veterinary shots were received by Canadian airline authorities. But Kiki was brought to Canada by another fleeing Ukrainian to rejoin the family in Red Deer in May.
Pryimachenko and Serbin are now happy to be reunited, along with their mother, in central Alberta.
Their father had staunchly refused to leave Ukraine, and their only other sibling is a brother who’s living and working in Estonia.
The sisters received a family shock when their aunt, who’s lived in Russia for many years after marrying a Russian, disowned her Ukrainian relatives, blaming Ukrainians for bombing themselves to make Russia look bad.
“My mother still cries about this,” admitted Serbin.
After her Olymel contract ended, she obtained credentials to work as an accountant and was able to bring her husband and son to Canada.
She and Pryimachenko are very grateful to all central Albertans who helped resettle dozens of Ukrainian families in this country.
Serbin wanted to express particular thanks to fundraiser Jim Nakonechny, who helped provide the Pryimachenkos with supplies, including new pillows and blankets.
He also persuaded Serbin to accept donated re-payment for half of the money she had spent on the airline tickets. “He said, ‘You are one person, helping six people…’” she recalled.
Pryimachenko is now taking English classes at Central Alberta Refugee Effort and hopes to soon find employment. She said she loves Red Deer’s parks and trails.
Her husband, who previously managed an electric company in Ukraine, is already working as a local building maintenance person. Their three children are meeting new friends — but Pryimachenko noted her oldest daughter still clings to the belief she will be able to return to her school and her Kyiv pals in September.
Although that seems unlikely, the mother doesn’t want to dash her child’s hopes yet.
Pryimachenko said she can imagine staying in Canada someday if given the opportunity. The temporary residency the family has received is only for a three-year stay.
But part of her will always long to return to Ukraine, she said, as her heart is with her homeland.