The line of cars and buses inching toward the Polish border was 25 kilometres long.
For two seemingly endless days Iryna and George Pietersen tried to keep their twin toddlers distracted as distant shelling shook the car, reaffirming their decision to leave Ukraine.
“It was crazy,” Iryna Pietersen said. “I was so scared.”
They’d left their home in Zhytomyr in a hurry, never imagining the border would be backed up with others fleeing the Russian invasion. Food and water were running low.
It was Feb. 26th, two days after Russian forces began striking military bases, including the one in Zhytomyr, a city of 280,000 in northwest Ukraine.
“Nobody believed there was going to be a war,” said George, a 63-year-old retired businessman, originally from South Africa.
“But we woke up at 5 a.m. on Feb. 24th to the sound of bombs hitting our city. I had a very bad feeling and wanted to get out.”
Iryna Pietersen, 41, was crying as she packed clothing for their two-year-old twins. Looked out the window she was stunned to see Russian aircraft overhead.
A neighbour agreed to take the family’s 10-year-old dog. But Iryna’s mother refused to join them.
“Mom didn’t want to leave. She said, ‘Where am I going to go? This is my home,’” her daughter said. But a few weeks later the shelling became so bad her mom evacuated to the Czech Republic.
Meanwhile, in the lineup at the Polish border, the car was running low on fuel. But they managed to find a gas station and refill 60 kilometres from the border.
“We were the lucky ones,” George Pietersen said. “Many others had to walk and carry what they could.”
In the weeks that followed the couple came to realize they wouldn’t be going home soon and needed to find a place to start a new life. That place turned out to be Sarnia, Ontario.
“We knew nothing about Canada,” said Iryna Pietersen.
The couple, who speak English, were considering Ireland when she noticed an online post from the Canadian government. It said visa applications were being accepted from Ukrainian refugees. Her husband happened to have a nephew in Sarnia, and when Mark Jupin offered his home and a car they accepted gratefully. They arrived in mid-April, work visas in hand.
“I’ve never asked for any handouts my entire life and it’s very hard,” George Pietersen said. “In Ukraine we had an amazing life, our home was Iryna’s dream house, our cars, a nanny…we were blessed.
“And it all changed in a blink of an eye.”
The couple are unable to look at images of the war. It’s too painful. Neighbours say their house is intact, despite the bombing, but they have little hope of returning anytime soon, if ever.
They say they are determined to re-establish themselves and provide stability for their children.
They credit their nephew, the volunteers of “Save Ukraine – Sarnia and Lambton County” on Facebook, and a local Service Ontario worker named Tanyea Myers for helping with donations of household items, clothing, and providing assistance with the paperwork needed for OHIP cards, SIN numbers, and bank accounts.
The twins are approved for three days a week of free daycare, so the couple can look for works, but local spaces are limited.
“I called every daycare I could find – 18 of them – and explained our story, and I found one who will take the kids. It’s amazing,” Iryna Pietersen said.
She is looking for work as a bookkeeper or administrative assistant. He has a background in steel manufacturing and hopes to find related work.
“There are lots of tears, and it’s emotional when we think of our home,” George Pietersen said.
“But what we left is gone.”