MOUNTAIN VIEW COUNTY — Escaping to greener pastures in Canada from the conflict in Ukraine isn’t quite like starting fresh from scratch.
But resettling some 20 minutes west of Sundre certainly represents the start of a new and more promising chapter in the life of a 24-year-old woman who found hosts willing to accommodate her in the Bearberry area of Mountain View County.
Valeriia Moroz, who arrived just before Canada Day, is no stranger to having her life suddenly uprooted and turned upside down as a result of Russia’s ambitions.
“I’m a second-time refugee,” Moroz said during an interview at the peacefully picturesque and serene rural residence of David and Jennifer Wells. She had just returned to her new home from running errands with Jennifer in Olds, such as setting up a bank account to help establish her fresh life in Canada.
Back during the 2014-15 Russian takeover of Crimea when her family lost their apartment and fled Luhansk, Moroz first experienced how quickly life plans can get completely derailed on a dime due to geopolitical factors beyond any one person’s ability to influence.
But when the war clouds once again began brewing above Eastern Europe with a massive Russian build-up of troops along the border with Ukraine, Moroz initially felt there was a level of sensationalized media fear-mongering and that President Vladimir Putin’s posturing was performative, sabre-rattling politicking.
“It was in the news that Russia might invade us. But it was in the news for so long – for maybe two months – that we didn’t know if it would actually happen,” she said.
“I couldn’t believe it”
Near the end of February the night prior to the start of the war, which Russian state media describe as a special military operation to de-Nazify and de-militarize the Ukraine, Moroz said she asked her mom what they would do in the event of an invasion.
Her mother reassured her they had a full tank of gas in the car and could on a moment’s notice just grab their passports and drive away.
But she still was not fully convinced at that point that the invasion was inevitable, and was even prepared to go into work the next day despite some of her colleagues asking whether it was safe to do so.
“I was at home,” she said when asked where she was and what she remembered about when the miles-long convoys of Russian tanks and troops spilled over the border.
“Then, I woke up at night. My dad told me that there are bombs and he can hear something,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it. But then I opened the window, I heard it.”
With all doubts about Russia’s intents now dispelled, the family did not waste another moment and hopped into their car, along with the daughter of one of her mother’s colleagues, who due to work commitments could not leave with them.
“And we just drove,” she said, adding they originally did not have a specific destination in mind other than as far west in Ukraine as possible. “We stopped only two times.”
The first leg of their escape from nearly relentless Russian ordinance and advancing troops was to Kiev from Irpin, a sort of commuter city for people like Moroz who work in the capital about an hour’s drive away.
“We are lucky we didn’t get killed, because there are Russian planes that were coming at night and we didn’t know if they were going to bomb us or bomb someone else,” she said.
She also recalled the desperate rush of so many people seeking sanctuary somewhere safe, prompting massive queues at gas stations. Not everyone was able to fuel up and flee the oncoming strife.
“When Kiev started to be bombed, people started just to walk with their bags along the highway,” she said. “That was just horrific. Like the Apocalypse or something. These two weeks were just probably the craziest for Kiev.”
However, because of her prior experience in 2015, Moroz said she was better mentally prepared to steel her resolve and stay focus on the path ahead instead of dwelling on her emotions.
“Because if I would, I would probably be very depressed,” she said, with a laugh. “I just have to continue working and helping my sister and my mom.”
Of course staying closely connected to her family remains among her top concerns.
“If my mom doesn’t answer me for like three hours straight, I Google the news for Kiev,” she said.
The search for safety
Early on during the conflict, the family found their way to a church in Poland that was providing sanctuary to refugees. But there were only 30 beds available in a shared space, so after getting some rest, they managed to make arrangements with some of her friends who live about 100 kilometres from the Ukrainian border and stayed with them for about three days.
“Poland truly helped us, because it’s kind of a neighbouring brother-sister country,” said Moroz, who works for global accounting and consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.
“They assisted us a bit with accommodation and everything,” she said, adding they were able to relocate to Warsaw where she continued to work remotely, which because of the pandemic is something she was already accustomed to.
“We stayed there for three months,” she said.
Their grandmother, with whom they had in March lost contact with during 10 stressful days, was also able to join them in Poland.
“We’re lucky she’s alive because many people got killed there. We never thought Irpin would be that damaged,” she said, adding people also thought “Kiev wouldn’t be touched.”
Eventually, her mother, 44, had to return to Ukraine because of work and financial obligations, she said.
“She works in a bank kind of to help keep Ukraine’s economy operating still so we can finance our army,” she said, hopeful but uncertain as to whether they’ll all eventually be able to reunite in Canada as per their original plan.
Although they had successfully escaped the thick of the fighting in Ukraine, Moroz said she continued to feel a great sense of unease even from the relative safety of Poland.
“Half of the territory of Poland is used for the NATO purposes,” she said, adding military trains and helicopters are a common sight.
And just how far Putin’s ambitions reach remains unclear, she added.
“Historically, we are all like – Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, and Poland – we’ve kind of all been different parts of each other,” she said, unsure of the Russian media’s spin on that shared history.
“So, Poland is also afraid of this. I don’t feel it’s safe there. I don’t know what will happen in Europe since it’s all changing so quickly now,” she said.
As a result of this lingering instability fuelling anxious uncertainty, she decided to begin looking for greener pastures elsewhere, her gaze eventually falling onto Canada.
When Canada’s government announced assistance for Canadians who were interested in hosting Ukrainian refugees, the family began to search websites on the internet that connected willing hosts with Ukrainians seeking shelter.
“My mom investigated because we didn’t want to go to the big city because it’s expensive,” she said. “We wanted to go somewhere closer to a medium city or developing city so I would get a job closer to my experience.”
Through correspondence with a number of potential hosts, Moroz said she eventually “chose people who looked more trustworthy and reliable.”
Additionally, she said she was fortunate to have found an organization that not only financed half the cost of her flight, but also cross-reference both her and her new hosts’ police record.
“I was still worried that I would arrive somewhere and then something would happen, like be kidnapped or something,” she said, adding the Wells also wanted to ensure the person they agreed to host arrived at the door as presented online.
Regular communication developed a trusting relationship, and Moroz finally found herself on a plane to Canada.
Having previously spent time in Michigan and Colorado through scholarships as an undergraduate, she said when asked about her initial impression upon pulling into the isolated rural property, “The landscape looked similar. North America has a sort of different lighting from Europe, mind you, maybe because of the altitude. I seemed to be prepared, but I didn’t expect so much wild nature!”
Back home, her family is doing well under the difficult circumstances.
“My mom is so busy with work,” she said, adding her father who cannot travel because of martial law also has his hands full with humanitarian as well as personal work.
“My sister is happy with grandma and just living at home having her toys and some of her friends.”
Unfortunately, her sister is not likely to return to class any time too soon.
“Usually, Russia tends to target community buildings, municipal buildings,” she said.
“They actually brought children to that theatre (in Mariupol) and wrote, in Russian for them, that there are children (inside). And they just bombed it,” she said.
“We think they do it on purpose. So, schools will not be open, and hospitals will not be open.”
Responding to Russia’s narrative
Asked for her reaction to the Russian government’s tightly controlled messaging about the invasion being a “special military operation” to “de-Nazify and de-militarize” the Ukraine, she imparted a few thoughts.
“I think we became more militarized now since the Russian invasion,” she said. “We were never a military country.”
Recognizing the problem of corruption in the Ukraine, she said there has nevertheless been plenty of progress made in the country’s post-Soviet period since the Iron Curtain collapsed.
And tragically, the friendlier relations that had over the past few decades been built between the neighbouring nations, have all but completely come undone in mere months.
“We don’t want to talk to them because we are so very angry. I don’t want to interact with them,” she said.
At first during the invasion’s opening days, Ukrainians wanted to give the Russians the benefit of the doubt. But those past amiable sentiments were among the Russian artillery’s collateral damage.
“Now, we feel so negative to Russians,” she said. “I don’t understand why they do it. I don’t know if other governments are involved in it. I think they all have common interests maybe in it.”
Although tens of thousands of Russians took to protesting the invasion in the streets early on, prompt and widespread crackdowns rounded up and jailed thousands, quickly drowning out dissent.
“If they want to live as North Korea, they can,” she said.
“They have enough problems to solve themselves. I don’t know why they bomb Ukraine. I don’t think they want the land,” she said. “I don’t know what they want.”
The only outcome of the war in her estimation has been to push Ukraine into crisis.
“We produce a lot of wheat that is necessary,” she said, adding that while it doesn’t necessarily produce lots of money, the food is necessary and ripple effects are being felt in place like the Sudan and Yemen.
Even in social media groups, she said Ukrainians aren’t made to feel welcome by Russians.
“Ukrainians who go in this group were so much bullied that we are not joining these groups,” she said, adding there are even Russians in Calgary who become upset with Ukrainians over the whole situation.
“They think Putin is right. I don’t understand his narrative. I think it’s a new one every time.”
While there are some sympathetic Russians, they don’t seem able to openly express their opinions.
“I think even some people who understand the situation, they just are so ashamed to talk to Ukrainians, and we just don’t know how to react,” she said. “I feel just angry; they should do something.”
She also expressed doubts about the ability of Russians to freely and fairly elect a leader.
“I don’t think it’s a democracy,” she said. “I don’t like modern Russia, and I feel sorry for its people. I feel sorry that they are fed these news and just believe in it.”
The path to Canadian citizenship
Although still somewhat uncertain about her path forward from here, Moroz said she does not anticipate returning to the Ukraine any time soon. Perhaps ever.
“I wouldn’t go back,” she said when asked if she has any hopes of eventually returning. “As a young woman, it puts me potentially in more danger because there are just armed men around and no police.”
While both her mother and grandmother remain in the Ukraine, as well as her nine-year-old sister, she aspires to pursue the long path to Canadian citizenship and hopes to eventually sponsor their trip here.
After all, home is where the heart is. Moroz said she misses her family more than the country or their apartment.
“It just doesn’t make sense to go back now,” she said. “I think I would provide more for my sister, who’s growing up, by staying in Canada.”
Taking one step at a time, she hopes to pursue a permanent residency and eventually apply for Canadian citizenship.
“Here, it feels safer,” she said.
Although her time in Canada to date has been brief, it’s also been enjoyable, she said while sitting at a kitchen table with a black cat called Pudding who was intently observing the conversation.
“He’s a very naughty cat,” she said, smiling. “He likes to scratch my suitcases, to play with the cords of my computer, to run on the computer. So I usually close the door, because he is a troublemaker.”
She also looked forward to making new connections with members of a Calgary-based Ukrainian church community.
Moroz, who fluently speaks Ukrainian, Russian, and English, also has an understanding of some German and Polish.
Additionally, she has two masters degrees – one in world literature including English, Russian and Slovenian, and another in international economic relations.
“I like teaching English,” she said, referring to tutoring. “I teach usually for just a small fee so I can buy coffee or something.”
Canada built by immigrants
Jennifer, who owns the rural quarter section with husband David, said websites for people who wanted to host immediately began to pop up when Russia invaded.
“We posted on three websites. Then, about a month went by before we started hearing from people,” she said, adding some never replied after a few initial communications.
The couple had also previously sought to assist refugees from the Middle East.
“One thing that makes me a little sad, is that we tried really hard to help Afghan refugees,” she said, adding she had even taken a course to prepare.
But there seemed to be more stringent government-imposed hurdles in that instance, she said.
“We couldn’t just say, ‘Hey! We’ve got bedrooms; we’ll pay everything while you’re here!’” she said about Afghan refugees. “We could have done that for them, but it was too complicated. And what makes me sad, is I feel that it was a racial thing.”
She understands from the perspective that many people have parents or grandparents who fought in the Second World War and can thus more easily relate to Europeans than for example Afghan refugees, but is nevertheless dismayed.
“That makes me sad, if that is the case. But definitely, it was so hard to do. There were so many hoops to jump through that it was impossible to actually do,” she said, adding requirements included being a relative or speaking the language.
“Whereas this, the Canadian government has just said, ‘If you’ve got bedrooms, we’ll send people. We’ll get people here.’”
In this instance, Jennifer said refugees initiate the process by going through the Canadian government on their end first.
“They have to get the proper visa to come to Canada,” she said, adding refugees can then begin to search for a potential host.
Although the Wells would be prepared to have Moroz stay indefinitely if need be, Jennifer expects it is just a matter of time before their highly-qualified and well-educated houseguest forges her own path.
“She’s obviously an overachieving young person, which is great,” Jennifer said. “We need all of those we can get. That’s what our country’s built on.”