First charter plane with Ukrainian newcomers lands in Winnipeg, welcomed by prior immigrant volunteers

After a harrowing journey out of Ukraine spanning months, Anna and Yaroslav Andiienko and their two-year-old son, Sviatoslav, are safe and sound in Winnipeg, their new home. 

“We’re starting everything from zero,” Anna said. 

The young family of three and Anna’s mother, Olena Ipatieva, fled their small northern city of Chernihiv in December, over fears of an impending war. They arrived in Winnipeg on the first federal charter flight carrying Ukrainian newcomers. 

Because they left Ukraine before the start of Russia’s invasion, Yaroslav was able to stay with his family. Men of military age, 18 to 60, have been banned from leaving the country, so they can stay back and fight.

While Anna’s mom was able to join them, Yaroslav’s is still in Ukraine. 

“Around the city [Chernihiv] there is still sounds of bombs and everything … every time we call each other, it’s really scary,” Anna said.

The flight from Warsaw, Poland landed around 3:45 p.m. Winnipeg time, with 350 passengers and some pets—like Ipatieva’s chihuahua—on board.

While waiting at the airport for the flight to arrive, Pavlo and Natalie Lebedev received an emotional phone call from the plane as soon as it touched down: their loved ones are here, and they’re safe.

Pavlo’s mother and sister, who the couple hadn’t seen since they left, are on the flight. His sister was living near Kyiv when Russia invaded, and was surrounded by troops for over a month before being able to flee across the border.

After leaving Ukraine, they had been in Warsaw for over a month while waiting for their visas.

Natalie’s mother, sister, and niece arrived in Winnipeg a month ago. Her sister’s husband stayed in Ukraine. 

The couple said they hadn’t been able to sleep or eat much since the beginning of the war, as they watched the news and waited anxiously for updates from family and friends. 

Pavlo Lebedev is reunited with his mother, who has fled the war in Ukraine. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Premier Heather Stefanson was at the airport to welcome the Ukrainian arrivals.

“Our government is so honoured, and Manitobans are so honoured to welcome the first charter flight from Ukraine, carrying those families that are seeking some respite here in Manitoba,” Stefanson said.

In March, the provincial government established a task force dedicated to coordinating the arrival of Ukrainians and to establish services to help them transition to life in Manitoba.

Those services include housing supports, health care, mental health services, and child care. The newcomers will also be able to receive COVID-19 vaccinations.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland traveled to Winnipeg to greet the charter flight and handed out toys to children.

She is urging anyone with family in Ukraine or that have fled the country to go to the Canadian government’s website to apply for the federal emergency travel authorization.

“Canadians have very open hearts and are very ready to welcome these Ukrainians,” Freeland told reporters outside the airport.

While the Lebedevs’ families have familiar faces to welcome them to Winnipeg, many arrived today not knowing anyone.

A group of volunteers, many of whom immigrated here from Ukraine themselves, stepped in to offer translation and to help the newcomers make their way to the hotel welcome centre.

Syvatoslav Furda came to Canada six years ago, and is volunteering through the Ukrainian Canadian Congress.

“Many people that are coming here, they do not have any family or anybody who will be able to assist them in more a family kind of matter. So for me, it’s really important to help them and give them this kind of understanding and feeling that they are welcome here and are like home,” Furda said.

Volunteers have been making preparations for 350 Ukrainian newcomers to arrive in Winnipeg. (Jérémie Bergeron/CBC)

When Mariana Sklepowich came to Canada, she was welcomed and accepted into a community with the help of volunteers. Today, she’s hoping to offer the same comfort and guidance.

“It’s important to just offer a little bit of a ray of hope, some comfort to the people who are coming here and seeking some refuge and safety,” Sklepowich said.

While she feels a bit of excitement for the newcomers to be arriving in a safe, welcoming community, she’s mindful of the journey they’ve gone through to get here.

“It’s been a really long journey and a difficult one full of potential trauma that the people arriving have experienced. So we are very sensitive to that. But we also want to make sure that they feel welcome with open arms when they arrive in Manitoba.”

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