Community meal welcomes Ukrainian refugee families fleeing war

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After traveling thousands of miles after escaping the war in Ukraine, Nataliia Aykul and her family adjust to life at Fort McMurray.

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The family has been in the region for almost two weeks. Aykul said her family was fortunate to have accommodation and friends in the region who prepared everything for her arrival.

Aykul, her husband and their two children, aged 13 and 5, were living in Kyiv when the Russian military invaded Ukraine at the end of February. The family spent the first days of the war in a Kiev subway station that doubled as an air raid shelter.

“We slept on the floor and it was really, really scary,” she said. “We heard the sound of bombs… I still remember those sounds and sometimes I wake up from horror dreams.”

Aykul and her family are four of 35 Ukrainian refugees who have come to Fort McMurray. A potluck dinner was held for the newcomers last Friday. At least 42 more Ukrainians are expected in the region from Friday.

Liubov Kuzmyk and her husband and four children arrived at Fort McMurray in early May. Kuzmyk has learned English and is in a pre-employment program. She hopes to raise funds to help relatives in Ukraine once she starts working, although speaking English is her top priority.

“Ukrainians themselves got used to a lot of things that are not normal and not right,” she said through a translator. “Feels like a situation where there’s almost no way out for people to learn to live with the new reality, but it’s a very harsh reality.”

Aykul said her family is adjusting to the different customs, foods and habits in Canada. But they were overwhelmed by the kindness as people they had never met volunteered to help them.

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“Everything is very different from Ukraine… But it’s very comfortable,” said Aykul. “We are very surprised by the friendliness of Canadians.”

Lee-Anne Kumka, president of the Fort McMurray Cultural Society of Ukraine (FMUCS), said there was a lot of bureaucracy to deal with. Eligibility for some programs and services changes frequently. People also need to get Canadian bank accounts, addresses and health cards.

For the Ukrainian community there is concern for friends, family and people who are still in Ukraine.

“Now a family from Mariupol is here. They don’t have anything, so they only deal with what they knew wasn’t there anymore,” Kumka said.

FMUCS has been conducting refugee fundraisers and humanitarian efforts since the beginning of the war. With the Wood Buffalo Community Foundation (WBCF), they created a fund to help Ukrainians get to Fort McMurray. Donations can be made via WBCF website.

“The community immediately responded with generosity and compassion, so we never had to buy anything. Everything we needed was miraculously provided,” said event organizer Alexandra Tarasenco.

“I really hope that you feel welcome, that you feel at home and that you feel like you belong here,” she said. “This is a great community and we will do our best to support you in any way we can.”

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Lee-Anne Kumka, President of the Fort McMurray Cultural Society of Ukraine, (left) and Liubov Kuzmyk at a potluck dinner at the Unifor Building in downtown Fort McMurray on Friday, June 24, 2022. Laura Beamish/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia network
A Canadian flag and a Ukrainian flag at a potluck and community recognition dinner welcoming newly arrived Ukrainian families on Friday, June 24, 2022 at the Unifor Building in downtown Fort McMurray.  Laura Beamish/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
A Canadian flag and a Ukrainian flag at a potluck and community recognition dinner welcoming newly arrived Ukrainian families on Friday, June 24, 2022 at the Unifor Building in downtown Fort McMurray. Laura Beamish/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
On Friday, June 24, 2022, people fill their plates with food at a potluck and community recognition dinner welcoming newly arrived Ukrainian families at the Unifor Building in downtown Fort McMurray.  Laura Beamish/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
On Friday, June 24, 2022, people fill their plates with food at a potluck and community recognition dinner welcoming newly arrived Ukrainian families at the Unifor Building in downtown Fort McMurray. Laura Beamish/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
On Friday, June 24, 2022, newly arrived Ukrainian families will be welcomed to the Unifor Building in downtown Fort McMurray with a Potluck and Community Recognition Dinner.  Laura Beamish/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
On Friday, June 24, 2022, newly arrived Ukrainian families will be welcomed to the Unifor Building in downtown Fort McMurray with a Potluck and Community Recognition Dinner. Laura Beamish/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

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