In the spring of last year, Valentyna Zavhordnia moved to Canada from Ukraine, becoming one of the nearly 6 million refugees fleeing their home country since Russia’s invasion began last Februray.
Now a resident of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Zavhordnia has been working to acclimate to being away from her home country. Despite being part of what she says is a welcoming community, however, things have not been easy.
The signs of destruction in Ukraine after a year and a half of the invasion are clear, she said, but the scars of war are not just physical.
“We can see bombed buildings, infrastructure, rockets, tanks, weapons. But there’s something beyond the human eye,” she said.
That something is an emotional toil effecting everyone, she said, whether you’re a soldier fighting in the war or a family member who moved to Canada.
“There is no class of Ukrainians who are okay. Those who stay suffer from bombing and shelling every night, and those Ukrainians who left – like us. We are suffering because of the survivor’s guilt.”
In hopes of helping take a step toward self-care for fellow Ukrainians in Canada, Zavhordnia set up a wellness day at the Château Des Charmes winery on Sunday.
“We had yoga and meditation first to prepare our bodies and relax a little bit. Then we meditated and we’re having art therapy right now,” Zavhordnia said.
The day, dedicated to Ukranian women taking refuge in Canada, also featured free childcare.
Under Ukrainian law, Zavhordnia said, men cannot leave the country under most circumstances, so most of the refugees are women and children.
“I didn’t have anybody and I wanted other women who just came to have friends, especially other female friends. People who you can scream and yell or cry or sing with,” she said.
As of mid-August, more than 175,000 people have moved to Canada from Ukraine through the Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel program, which began last March.
More than one million Ukrainians have applied for temporary residency in Canada and more than 687,000 have been approved.
When Zavhordnia first arrived in Canada with her family, she was 21 years old.
“I thought I would go to Toronto because I’m young and it’s a big city. I’m from Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine,” she said.
Her family started off living in Niagara Falls, but her parents later found a job in St. Thomas and she and her sister moved to Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Ultimately, she decided to stay in Niagara after starting her own pierogi business.
Now, she’s 23 years old and said she really likes it in this community.
“I’m trying to settle down and I think it’s the perfect place for me to stay and start my business,” she said.
The emotional struggle this war is causing for Ukrainians doesn’t have a quick fix, Zavhordnia says.
“We just started to heal from the trauma that the Soviet Union caused, the Second World War and the great famine,” she said.
“Our new generation just started to heal and then it happened again. So we are now realizing what’s going on in our souls and minds,” she added.
Zavhordnia said that while the road to repairing Ukrainian mental health isn’t short, coming together is the first important step.
“It’s just another beginning. They will start to rebuild all those visible things, buildings, infrastructure. But something that happened to these people, it’s something that will be very hard to fix,” she said.
Zavhordnia expressed that she is extremely thankful for her community of newcomers and how welcome Niagara-on-the-Lake has been, specifically to Château Des Charmes and Paul-André Bosc, the winery’s president and CEO.
“Paul offered us the space (for free), and I asked him why. He just said, ‘Because I believe in what you’re doing,'” Zavhordnia said.