By Dee Dwyer
On a sunny warm October afternoon, I sat down with Kateryna Kharchuk, who now lives in West Jeddore, to hear her story of leaving war-torn Ukraine and coming to Canada and the Eastern Shore.
Kateryna grew up in Kyiv, the daughter of a psychiatrist father and a cardiologist mother. She started studying Chinese in the first grade, after her father made a trip to China, fell in love with the country, and came back and suggested she should take up Chinese.
She later lived on the island of Hainan, near Taiwan. She studied in an exchange program in Dalian and has her Masters in Chinese Language and Literature from Tianjin. She also taught language and culture to foreigners in Shanghai, where her son Stas was born in 2016. He is now six years old and her daughter Vlada is eight.
Like so many, Kate did not believe the Russians would attack. “Early on, we heard from US Intelligence that there may be war, but at first we thought it was a joke,” she said. “It was not possible in the 21st century.” She was teaching Chinese to students of grades one to four at the Gymnasium of Oriental Languages, which offers courses in Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Persian. “My grandfather’s uncle was the first principal of the school,” she said. “It’s a school for diplomats.”
When the Russians launched their attack, Kateryna was in the western part of Ukraine. Families rushed to escape, with women and children going to many different European countries. Some lines to leave took eighteen to twenty hours of waiting without food. “We were lucky,” Kate said. “We were among the first to leave so the wait was only four hours. Some people were trapped and killed in their cars.”
After crossing the border into Hungary, Kate stayed briefly at a run-down hotel, before going on a 40-hour drive to Vienna, Austria. She had heard through her father’s assistant that Viennese hotels, through an organization called Hospitality Helps, were offering free accommodations for five nights to Ukrainians. She and her children stayed in eight different hotels while she waited for approval to come to Canada. She taught online during this time. She took the children to museums, but her daughter Vlada kept asking when they were going to school.
After waiting four weeks, and not knowing if she should apply for visas to other countries, Kateryna and her children came to Canada and the Eastern Shore at the end of March 2022. She found work at the Railway Museum during July and August and met lots of people there. Now she is working as a substitute EPA at Oyster Pond Academy, helping students with special needs, and working through the Excel program, with 30 students after school. “Everybody has been so helpful,” Kateryna, said. “Neighbours have been bringing clothes. Someone even brought me a Ukrainian book.”
Meanwhile, Kateryna’s parents and grandparents are still in Kyiv. Her father has a private clinic in Kyiv and doesn’t want to leave, and her mother travels to villages outside the city to help patients in need of care. One of her grandmothers remembers the airplanes of the Second World War, when the Nazis came to Kyiv in 1941.
Kateryna asked me to make sure that Canadians appreciated what Ukrainians were doing: “What I want everyone to know is that Ukraine is fighting and showing the world what freedom and real democracy are.”