By Joe Konecny

Aylmer Express / Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

When Maksym Nechytailo, Irina Koval and their two children, Sofia and Bohdar, finally set foot in Elgin County in the coming weeks, their first words will probably be ‘thank you’.

The Ukrainian refugee family – fleeing from the Russian invasion of their homeland – is on its way to the home of Ana and Marshall Smith, near Port Stanley. The Smiths have invited the Ukrainians to use a granny suite in their Sunset Drive home for one year.

They’re also rallying the community to help co-ordinate the transition and raise funds to cover some $25,000 in relocation expenses. It’s hoped they will arrive in time for a gala fundraiser at the home of Port Stanley’s Ed Finlan, 547 West Edith Cavell Blvd., on June 4, 2022.

Ana and Marshall Smith

“They are overcome with happiness,” Ana Smith said in an interview on Monday. “Every time I speak to them, they keep saying ‘thank you’.

“They are bringing all that they have, what they could fit into a suitcase,” she added. “Everything was lost. They left their entire life behind. I hope they can be here for the fundraiser.”

Maksym and Irina fled from a condominium in Kiev to a host family in France on March 5, 2022. (He was allowed to legally leave the Ukraine because Maksym is the sole guardian of a child from a previous marriage.) Then the family headed to Germany and will move again soon to Poland, where they hope to catch a flight to Toronto. The adults already have travel documents, but they are still waiting for the children’s visas.

“We had to do it,” Nechytailo states in a letter to the Smiths. “At first, we expected that the war would stop, but as things progressed, we realized that it was too dangerous for our family to remain in Ukraine.

“We fled with too little time to properly prepare for the trip and to pack everything that we would need,” the letter continues. Nechytailo, 50, is a fine arts teacher specializing in paint, and Koval, 40, is a psychologist. “We have heard many good things about Canada and have decided to start our new life in this country. We really want to feel safe again.

“We would like to integrate into Canadian society to find a job, housing, and everything needed to start a new life,” added Nechytailo, who has intermediate English language skills. His wife and children have little to none. “We are optimistic about the future and believe that our children will be happy in Canada. We are overwhelmed with the positive attitude that Canadians have demonstrated towards our situation. Thanks a lot to everyone who helps.”

Port Stanley’s Ed Finlan is hosting a fundraiser for the refugee family on June 4, 2022.

The poster promoting the fundraiser at Finlan’s waterfront home states: “Let’s have some fun and do some good while we’re at it.”

The fundraiser – from 12 noon to 4 p.m. – will feature Sea Shanty Irish songs performed by Finlan’s band Blown Ashore, with hot dogs and hamburgers provided by Port Stanley Foodland. There will be a silent auction of local art, plus a 50-50 draw. All funds raised will support the Ukrainian family. Finlan’s wife, artist Jane Paterak, is also hosting a pottery sale that starts at 8 a.m. Half of pottery sales will support the refugee family.

“We have had a tremendous response from the community,” said Marshall Smith, an urban planner at KLM Planning Partners, in Concord. “The gofundme page has raised $2,400, in just two weeks.”

The Smiths said the fundraiser will support things like: the cost of the flight from Europe; consular translation and application fees; food and hygiene products; school and office supplies; telephone services; climate appropriate clothing; and a rental deposit, furniture, bedding and kitchen items for transition to a permanent independent living situation.

“I don’t think we thought things in the Ukraine would get to where they are today,” said Smith, who earned a Masters of Development Practice (MDP) at Waterloo University, and a BA Honors in Global Studies and Spanish at Wilfrid Laurier University. “We were shocked. Just as a matter of circumstance, these people are caught in the middle of a war.

“We started thinking that we could help,” added Smith. “Marshall and I have always had a desire to help with refugees.” She said their children – Elena, two, Chiara, 13, Myah, 18 – are also “excited, enthusiastic” about sharing their home.

Ana Smith was a social housing worker in Peel Region before the pandemic struck, but she opted to spend more time closer to home with the children. She and Marshall launched VivaCity Development and Holdings. The company repurposes underutilized buildings for commercial or residential uses.

The couple first became interested in sponsoring a Ukrainian family after one of Marshall’s clients described his experience. This led them to various Facebook pages on the subject – including Ukrainian Host and Guest Support – and eventually they consulted with the London Ukrainian Centre.

“One day, I saw Maksym posted a photo of himself and his two children,” said Ana. “I left a post for them … he messaged me. We sent him photos, told him what life is like here, posted a video of our family on Facebook (and) after meeting them and speaking with them (online), we felt it was something we’d like to do.”

Refugees are taking advantage of the Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel (CUAET) program, providing accelerated temporary residence for Ukrainians seeking safe haven in Canada. With CUAET, Ukrainians and their immediate family members may stay in Canada as temporary residents for up to three years.

According to recent CBC report, “More than 10 million Ukrainians – one-quarter of the country’s population – have been driven from their homes, including more than 4.7 million who have fled the country since Russia’s invasion began February 24, 2022.”

Ontario is expecting some 40,000 refugees. A CTV report states “ … it’s unclear how many Ukrainians have arrived in Ontario so far, but … many are staying with friends and family.” About 375,000 Ukrainians already live in Ontario, the largest population in Canada.

The Smith family has offered a granny suite in their Sunset Drive home to a Ukrainian refugee family fleeing from the Russian invasion of their homeland.