The audience was in tears well before Oksana Druchynina was finished sharing her story of escape from the war in Ukraine.
People’s faces showed their shock as she painted a picture of her crossing borders and talked about the constant terror of not knowing if she’d make it to Canada safely.
Druchynina was not the only Ukrainian in that room at that time.
With Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship of Canada (IRCC) expanding its settlement support initiatives for Ukrainians coming to the country, there was an immediate rippling effect at New Directions English Language School as a number of Ukrainian newcomers registered for English language education.
As a result of the influx, New Directions president Yvonne Hopp proposed an event where Ukrainians could meet other Ukrainians in the area.
“I wanted ensure that the newcomers felt safe and welcome,” she explained.
Soon, she was ready with a plan and on Thursday, April 27, she organized a Ukrainian meet and greet at the institution’s campus.
“On Thursday morning, it was evident by the bustling activity that another exciting community event was being held at New Directions.”
Guests included past and present Ukrainian students of New Directions in addition to other community partners, who made yellow and blue ribbons for all the attendees.
School volunteers were seen setting up the food service, featuring Ukrainian perogies.
Many made cards and posters with words of encouragement and support, decorating with sunflowers, and yellow and blue tulle, the colours of the Ukrainian flag.
“It was a grass-roots event,” said Hopp.
The meet and greet was held in the atrium of New Directions.
City Mayor Val van den Broek was present and addressed the audience of approximately 50 people – speaking on the horror of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and encouraging donations through charities.
After the mayor, Ruth Derksen Siemens, who is a board member of the Mennonite Centre Ukraine, spoke of her relatives who perished in Siberia having been sentenced to the Gulag by Stalin’s regime.
She also talked about the letters which she had translated and published in the form of a book, Remember Us: Letters from Stalin’s Gulag (1930-37).
Finally, she introduced Druchynina, a Ukrainian refugee who fled her home with her three children and is currently sponsored by Langley Mennonite Fellowship in Langley.
Druchynina told her story of fleeing with only a backpack, driving down a road where only hours later, bombs were dropping, wondering if she would ever see her mother in Kyiv again, or her husband who remained in their home town of Molochansk (southeast Ukraine) again.
She is now the manager of Mennonite Centre Ukraine, a charity for the elderly and destitute, established by Canadians whose Mennonite ancestors had fled those very villages as refugees, after the Second World War.
“We felt safe and loved our country of Ukraine. I was helping other people in need, now I am a refugee myself,” said Druchynina.
As she left the stage, people presented her cards filled with heartfelt messages of condolences and support.
“They were filled with prayers for peace and assurances of love and a warm welcome here in Canada. Several students from various countries offered words of comfort. They included India, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan… students shared words of encouragement and embraced,” shared Hopp.
Following the formalities, everyone joined for refreshments and mingled with one another, making new friends.
“For the Ukrainian refugees in our midst, there was a warm and welcoming atmosphere that achieved and fulfilled the purpose of the event,” she added. “Clearly, at least for those three hours, their fears were allayed, and they felt welcome and at home.”
Have a story tip? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.