After months of volunteering, planning and strategizing we, Michael and Rebecca, would like to announce the launch of our federally registered charity "Help From Canada". Help From Canada is the culmination of months of research and personal experience responding to the refugee crisis brought on by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
We spent April and May, 2022 on the front lines of the refugee crisis, both on the Polish/Ukrainian border and inside Ukraine in Lviv, face to face with the needs, terror, and uncertainty of the refugees fleeing Russia’s attack. As we experienced the heartbreak and trauma of war, we discovered that our strengths, skill sets, and hands on experience has positioned us to be the connection between donors and those who need it the most.
Help From Canada’s story starts on February 24th, 2022 when Russia launched a full scale military assault on Ukraine. Michael’s passion to help Ukraine comes two fold. Michael’s heritage is 3/4 Ukrainian. His family immigrated to Canada in the early 1900’s, settling in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. His Grandpa was proud of his heritage running a Ukrainian broadcast throughout his lifetime. Family dinners are not complete without homemade borscht, perogies, and cabbage rolls. The second connection to the region was his professional ice hockey career. Michael spent ten years playing professional ice hockey in the KHL in Russia. He made his home and career in Russia, immersing himself in the culture and language learning to speak Russian at a high level. He truly valued his time in Russia, he valued the people and the opportunities they gave him to make a career and home in their country.
When Russia invaded Ukraine, Michael was deeply disturbed. The thought of Russia, a place he had grown to love, a place he had made his home, attacking his own blood and heritage, Ukraine, was unbearable. When we woke up to the news Michael immediately stated he had to do something, he had to be involved, and he had to help save Ukrainians.
Michael started researching with a vengeance, asking every volunteer organization and every Ukrainian group if they could use our help, to no avail. Every group and organization was swamped and could not keep up with the demands and needs to process volunteers. This would not put a stop to our search. Our needs to find a connection on the ground were answered through downtown lunches and friends. We were put in contact with a friends son, a paramedic at an emergency medical tent on the border of Ukraine and Poland. Michael offered to rent a van to shuttle refugees and also translation services to Ukrainians flooding across the border.
This connection was enough to get us on site. We arrived at the Ukraine, Poland border armed with a 9 passenger van and the determination to help. Once on site we were finally able to determine where we could be best utilized. We were astonished that there were very few large organizations present, it was hundreds of volunteers just like us stepping in and getting to work anywhere they saw a need.
In Rebecca’s words:
The next month, April 2022, was a whirlwind of emotions and exhaustion. We positioned ourselves at the busiest refugee crossing into Europe at Medyka, Poland. The weather was cold and mostly rainy staying between 4 and 12 degrees. The rain and wind seamed to never stop, turning to a mix of snow overnight. The refugees mostly flooded across without so much as a proper coat or gloves for the weather. Moms carried their small children unable to bring anything other than their children. The weather made the situation more dire and seamed to set a perfect scene of the terrors of war.
Transportation had been thrown together trying to keep up with the hundreds flooding across the border but it couldn’t keep up. This left mother’s, children, and grandparents standing outside in the rain and cold for hours at a time. We were told of someone succumbing to hypothermia overnight after arriving at the shelter. Knowing this we would drive until we knew everyone was safe, we couldn’t stop knowing we could be leaving someone out in the cold. We drove 14 hours a day covering the especially critical hours overnight, shuttling refugees from the border, to the train station, and two separate humanitarian aid centres. We quickly became known by the police, military, and volunteers as a safe and reliable means to transport refugees. In just a day we transported endless van loads of refugees, often as many as 15 people and multiple pets at a time. They would squeeze in, thankful to be squished in a warm, dry, and safe van. Next were grandparents caring for their severely disabled grandson, a mom with two grown disabled boys, a mom with a six week old baby who hadn’t seen daylight since the war erupted as they cowered hoping to survive in their basement, a husband and wife who were determined to stay until they watched Russian tanks shoot at every home as they passed through their small village, a frail grandfather pushed across the border, sitting in the rain in a shopping cart, a man who collapsed from exhaustion after not eating for ten days. The gut wrenching moments continued. The tears came in the tiny moments where you slow down just enough for reality to sink in. For me that was most often in a bathroom stall in McDonald’s as we picked up our fifth coffee that day.
They would ask, “How much does this cost? How much is the shelter to stay the night?” Michael quickly taught me “Besplatno” it is without charge. As Michael spoke to the refugees and translated for me, every refugee was shocked to learn we were from Canada. They were in disbelief that people from other countries would come so far just to help them.
Two weeks in we began to share our stories with friends and family of the crisis we were witnessing and the people we had met. We told stories of the overwhelming emotions shared as we became the first safe and warm place the refugees had reached after fleeing the most terrifying days of their lives. Those twenty minutes in our van were the first moments where they finally knew they were safe and there were people who would help them. The support and encouragement from our friends and family back home was profound. We were encouraged to start a GoFundMe so people could donate and enable us to have an even greater impact on those we met. Our first purchase was 50 carry on suitcases delivered to the main humanitarian aid shelter. Most refugees had their belongings bundled in a sweater or stuffed in a small plastic grocery bag. To have a rolley bag to safely store the few belongings they had left in the world was an unimaginable blessing and gift.
After a month we were emotionally drained. On arrival back in Canada we noticed our own signs of trauma creeping into our days. It was a lesson that we needed to learn to manage our days and force ourselves to take breaks to rest and recover if we were to remain effective for the Ukrainian people.
The GoFundMe page was more successful than we could have imagined. We felt a great responsibility being entrusted with the mission of getting donations into action. We returned to Poland with the donated funds on May 19th, 2022 then made our way into Lviv, Ukraine. Although the city has avoided most of Russia’s missile attacks, the signs of war are present everywhere. Monuments are surrounded by metal frames and sandbags to protect them from shrapnel. Windows are boarded over, basements sandbagged to provide shelter, armed military check points with anti tank obstructions fill the roads. We found a hotel, rented a vehicle, and connected with a refugee run centre providing basic necessities. We arranged a time to meet the next morning. We walked around Lviv, taking in the stunning architecture and old city walls, contrasted by sandbags and armed forces with automatic weapons. That afternoon we heard our first air raid siren. My heart raced and jumped into my throat, my eyes shot up to the sky searching for an incoming attack. We were in the open and had very few options to take cover. I consciously slowed my breath and looked slowly at our surroundings, evaluating where the best cover would be. I watched as people walked by un-phased, they had grown accustomed to these sirens and unless there was an explosion they calmly carried on with their days. We learned that the sirens are activated over a potential swath of where the missiles could strike, this left us guessing if we really should run for a basement or carry on as the locals did.
The following morning we met with three college kids who had escaped Kharkiv and were now running this aid centre to help other refugees like themselves. The picture inside the country was more stark than the crisis hitting Europe. Internally there is little to no funding to care for the Ukrainians displaced from their homes who have now flooded into safer cities. Some live with friends and family while many are living in schools, churches, and warehouses. We spent the week making connections with shelters and buying enough essentials for them to cover just some of the needs of the people they were helping. We filled our SUV over ten times with diapers, baby formula, deodorant, soap, water, canned meats, toothbrushes and paste, washing detergent, pasta, feminine hygiene products, tea, cooking oil.
One special trip we found ourselves filling our SUV with cookies, toys, and sporting equipment to send to an orphanage of children who had just lost their parents to the war. It was a mix of heartbreak but joy that we could provide just a tiny glimmer of hope and a smile when their world’s were so dark.
As we experienced the hardship, desperation, and trauma of war we continued to search for ways to be more impactful, to help more people, to utilize our specific skill sets to aid refugees. This brings us to today and founding Help From Canada. Michael’s education, completing an MBA at Loughborough University, has been invaluable in becoming a Canadian federally registered charity. My experience as a pilot at a major Canadian airline, has positioned me to run our current program and main initiative of bringing Ukrainian refugees to Canada. With Michael’s deep connection to Ukraine and our experience with the war, we will continue to shift and adjust our mission with the dynamic and ever changing needs of the Ukrainian people.