Lasting friendship helps Ukrainian woman and her son find new hope in Ottawa

More than a month ago, Shemlei and her son made the long and sometimes perilous journey from the outskirts of kyiv — where rockets flew overhead and into buildings — to Ottawa.

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In more peaceful times, Nataliia Shemlei traveled widely and saw the world beyond her native Ukraine.

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“But she never thought that in a million years she would be living somewhere else,” says Victoria Chechui, a Kanata resident who is now home to Shemlei, 44, and her nine-year-old son, Tymur.

“She was happy in Ukraine.”

More than a month ago, Shemlei and her son made the long and sometimes perilous journey from the outskirts of kyiv — where rockets flew overhead and into buildings — to Ottawa. They crossed three different countries, sharing a single suitcase full of clothes. The Shemleis’ journey was only possible thanks to a friendship that began nearly four decades ago and has endured despite the distance between Canada and Ukraine.

Chechui, also 44, grew up in Ukraine near Donetsk, as did Shemlei’s husband Roman. Their friendship continued even after Chechui came to Canada at the age of 13.

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This connection prompted Chechui to propose to her childhood friend at the end of February: “Bring your family across the border. If you want them to come to Canada, I will help you,” she said.

Roman, a dentist, stayed in Ukraine to help defend his country. “I was trying to convince him to leave the country. He is convinced that his duty was to stay and defend his country,” Chechui said.

The last time Roman saw his wife and son was when they drove 16 hours to the Ukraine-Moldova border, she said. “It was a very dangerous situation. They didn’t know if they were going to meet Russians,” Chechui said. “Roman said he was loading the car with weapons in case they encountered Russians along the way.”

After Nataliia and Tymur said goodbye to Roman, they traveled to Bucharest, the capital of Romania, where they were processed at the Canadian Embassy. They spent nights in Romania, moving from one Airbnb property to another, before heading to Montreal from Turkey.

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“Tymur broke down in Turkey,” says Chechui. “He thought we were going to stay in Turkey forever.”

On March 23, Nataliia and Tymur arrived in Montreal, where Chechui met them. Now Ukrainians are settling into a new life in Ottawa.

Tymur, who had studied some English, is in 4th grade. Google’s translation tool helps, Chechui says. Tymur also plays with Chechui’s seven-year-old daughter who, unlike her mother, does not speak Ukrainian.

Nataliia has a three-year work permit and is keen to work as soon as possible. Trained as a doctor in Ukraine and formerly a cosmetologist in kyiv, Nataliia hopes to become a nurse in Canada, Chechui says. Next month, Nataliia will have a part-time job and will also start English lessons.

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Chechui says she and her guests go through “a roller coaster of emotions on a daily basis.”

Nataliia is worried about Roman, who can only be in contact with his wife when he’s not on a military mission, Chechui says.

Of course, the devastating news and images of war are heartbreaking, she adds. “The crimes against humanity that are being committed are unfathomable,” Chechui said.

“We have family and friends in Ukraine. It is difficult to think, breathe or function without bursting into tears.

At the same time, Nataliia and Tymur are “very grateful for everything they get,” Chechui says.

Nataliia speaks for a moment in Ukrainian and Chechui translates.

“She said to have a chance to work in this kind of country, in a free country, in a country where they are safe, is a huge thing,” Chechui says.

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Chechui, who owns and operates Zakuska Market and Deli with her husband, Robert Wnek, can relate to her guests because she came to Canada as a refugee from Ukraine when she was part of the Soviet Union.

While it’s natural to refer to Ukrainians such as the Shemleis as refugees, they are actually displaced people in Canada, Chechui says. As such, they are not eligible for the kind of support that Chechui herself received as a refugee, she says.

The Shemlei are among the first displaced Ukrainians to arrive in Ottawa because unlike many others, they had the means to leave and a family waiting to fully support them, says Vicki Karpiak, board member of the Foundation of the Ukrainian National Federation.

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Karpiak says she herself is waiting to take in a displaced Ukrainian woman. But that person doesn’t have the funds to apply to come to Canada, let alone make the trip, and they may have to return to Ukraine from Slovenia, Karpiak says.

While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with displaced Ukrainians in Poland last month as well as Polish President Andrzej Duda, no arrangements to transport displaced Ukrainians to Canada have been announced, Karpiak says.

Chechui says his grocery store, which was built last summer and opened in November, also has many Russian customers who oppose the war.

“They come with tears in their eyes. They have been very supportive (of Ukraine),” she says.

“They are just as upset and devastated as we are,” Chechui said. “The last thing we want to do is be divided here in Canada.

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