Sofia Slobodeniuk came to Sooke a year ago with her two children, the necessary paperwork, a few items of clothes, and very little English.
”We left our country during the most challenging time in March 2022,” said the 30-year-old single mother from western Ukraine.
In an effort to provide a secure environment for her children, she decided to relocate them from Ukraine to Slovakia. She quickly gathered essential documents and clothing, with just half an hour to prepare before their departure.
“It was a terrible time in west Ukraine. Lots of people were coming from other parts of the country. People were running like rats from a sinking ship. I left my apartment and some food for people from the worst areas,” Slobodeniuk said.
It took two days to walk to Slovakia.
Once there, Slobodeniuk got a call from a friend who explained how to go about getting a visa to come to Canada. This process took six months to complete.
“I didn’t know anything about Canada, other that it was the second largest country and very cold,” she said in improving English, assisted by a translation app on her phone.
“Everything I learned about Canada I got from Google,” she said, with a smile.
After Slobodeniuk found out she had an opportunity to come to Canada, she took an unconventional, intuitive approach to deciding where she wanted to live.
“I marked B.C., Quebec, Manitoba, and Alberta on pieces of paper and stood on each one for a few minutes,” she explained. “I did it again, and both times I felt best about B.C.”
She found a group on Facebook, Help Ukraine Vancouver Island Society, that said they would help her. She received a message from them about a host family in Sooke within a couple of days.
“We had a meeting online, and Sarah and Matthew (Levine) opened the door for my family,” she said. “They also helped me purchase airline tickets. They were quite expensive, and a lot of people helped them with that. They have two kids similar ages and that really helped my kids. I am really grateful for their help and support.”
Matthew Levine and his wife, Sarah, had already sponsored a family from Ukraine before reaching out to host the Slobodeniuks.
“We have extra space in our house, and wanted to help Ukrainians, especially young families facing all the turmoil over there and the terrible war that’s still going on,” Matthew Levine said.
“We set up a GoFundMe page and friends donated $25 or $50, with one friend generously giving $500 to help with the airline tickets. What we’re doing is one small part of Ukraine Vancouver Island Society’s efforts. Sofia is an amazing woman, very kind, gregarious and entrepreneurial, and a very talented baker and cook. Her kids are great as well, very kind and helpful.”
Although Slobodeniuk worked as a foot specialist in Ukraine for six years, her training and experience are not recognized here, just one of the many challenges she’s been dealing with since her arrival.
“I need medical education here to do what I did in Ukraine,” she said. “There are many barriers to do that in Canada, including language. It requires lots of money and lots of time. It would take me 10 years to save enough for the training.”
Time is a precious commodity for Slobodeniuk, who begins her day getting her children, aged eight and six, ready for school. Then it’s off for two hours of English lessons from 9 a.m. to 11 before she heads to Vibe Hair Studio, where she works until 7 p.m.
“I want to become a permanent resident but I need to work a full day, and daycare can be a huge problem,” she noted.
Fortunately, one of the other seven families staying at Ukrainian Safe Haven has been able to pick up her kids after school.
“For me, it’s been a year of unprecedented events and great challenges,” she said. “I miss my family, my friends, my boyfriend, my work, my dreams and the life we had in Ukraine. My children have changed schools in Ukraine, Slovakia and Canada, four times in one year.
“I’ve made it through the first year and done whatever it takes to survive, I think I’m ready to face the next year here. It is difficult to talk about the far-sighted future, because everything was taken from me on the morning of Feb. 24. Russia took away our home and broke our dream, but will never take away our freedom.”
Slobodeniuk emphasized how grateful she is to Ukrainian Safe Haven and everyone who has helped her family.
”I live day to day, but I am surrounded by happy people,” she said. “I am especially proud of my son. He only knew four words of English when we arrived, yes, no, hello, and apple. And now he can speak freely with his friends at school.”