A backpack filled with games, toiletries and undergarments was given to Nadiia Kuzniak’s son when the family arrived in Canada after fleeing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Inside the backpack was a note from a 13-year-old Canadian boy.
“Welcome to Canada. I hope these things make your stay here better. I’m sorry about what is happening to your country. I am praying for you and I hope you like staying in Canada,” the note said in English and Ukrainian.
The simple gesture left a lasting impression on Kuzniak and her 12-year-old son Yurii who arrived in Edmonton in early April.
“That letter made (us) feel like (we’re) not refugees. (We’re) just another human being just in a different world,” Kuzniak said in an interview in early May.
“It was very touching.”
The two left their home in Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine on Feb. 24, the same day a Russian missile struck the city’s airport.
Kuzniak has since returned to her homeland, drawn by a desire to help. It’s unclear how long she’ll stay.
The mother and son’s journey to Canada took them across many European borders.
“(We) met lots of very kind people all around and got help all around but only in Canada (did we) finally feel safe and protected,” she said
Kuzniak, who said she left Ukraine to protect her son, chose Edmonton because her sister, Oleksandra Sribnyak, lives there.
The Canadian Press spoke with Kuzniak and her sister over video chat from Sribnyak’s home. She acted as a translator for a portion of the conversation.
Sribnyak said when Russia started attacking Ukraine, her sister and nephew began experiencing “animal levels” of fear.
“As a mother, she did everything possible to protect her son from the psychological drama. They left the country early so he did not experience seeing the dead people on the street,” said Sribnyak.
“(With) what’s been happening in Ukraine these days, for him coming to Canada, it’s almost like a fairy tale”
As of the week of May 26, about 2,600 people had arrived in Alberta from Ukraine, the province says.
The family wanted Yurii to maintain a connection to his homeland while in Canada.
He is still taking classes from his school in Ukraine while enrolled in a school in Edmonton. He is also taking classes at a Ukrainian theatre school for children and has joined the Ukrainian scout organization called Plast.
While Kuzniak was working to establish herself in Alberta, the pull to return home was strong.
She had left behind her adult son and her father, who are helping with war efforts. Most men ages 18 to 60 have been banned from leaving Ukraine in case they are needed to fight.
Kuzniak said when she first arrived in Edmonton, a feeling of safety was overshadowed by a feeling of guilt.
Her main goal was to return to her home country when the war was over and help rebuild.
“All her thoughts are with Ukraine and the victory of Ukraine,” said Sribnyak.
That return would come sooner than expected.
On May 22, Kuzniak travelled back to Ukraine to provide humanitarian aid to the military and to see family.
Sribnyak opposed the trip. She felt it was too dangerous. She said her sister returned to a situation that is “getting worse by the day.”
A gas shortage has made moving around the country difficult. And there are mental effects the war has had on those who stayed behind. Sribnyak said she has heard from her sister that people are feeling numb to the horrors they have witnessed.
“Her feeling of the guilt was stronger than her feeling of the danger,” she said.
“I have no idea what her journey back will look like. She promised she will come.”
Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press