My escape from Ukraine to Canada

My family fled Kyiv on March 1. We travelled to four countries in five days and then spread out across three continents. Now I’m in Canada, hoping to one day see Ukraine again.
Yaroslava Dib
Yaroslava, left, and her 11-year-old son Nazar escaped from Ukraine as the war broke out. They travelled five days and hundreds of kilometres in search of sanctuary. (Photography by Markian Lozowchuk)
Portrait of Yaroslava & Nazar, Ukrainian refugees, for MacLean’s Magazine, April 10th, 2022.

Before the war, I lived with my husband, Yasser, and our sons, 27-year-old Amir and 11-year-old Nazar, in a neighbourhood near Kyiv called Kriukivshchyna. We had a beautiful house with a backyard where I kept a Japanese-style garden with plants and trees. I work as an educator. I own four private schools, and we have 210 students and more than 50 teachers and administrators on staff. I would usually start my day by greeting the students. We’d sing the national anthem and our school anthem and then I’d share some words of inspiration. From there, I would go back and forth between the schools for meetings with teachers and administrators. I really loved what I did. I had a great career, a loving family and a beautiful home.

I grew up in Makariv, a small town 50 kilometres west of Kyiv, with my parents and younger sister, Iryna. At that time, Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union. I moved to Kyiv in 1990 when I was 16 to study economics at the National University of Food Technologies. A year later I met Yasser, who was studying civil engineering. We were in university when the Soviet Union broke apart. I was happy to see Ukraine become a free country. It was a meaningful moment for all Ukrainians.

Yasser’s brother and sister had immigrated to Canada, and we moved there for a few years in 2001. I worked at the post office and studied at Mohawk College and McMaster University, while Yasser worked with his brother at a convenience store that he owned. We were happy in Canada and became Canadian citizens, but in 2006 we decided to move back to Ukraine. 

In 2014, the year I opened my first school, Russia invaded Crimea. There was a big protest in Kyiv’s city square—the Revolution of Dignity—against Russia’s influence on Ukraine. The government was overthrown and the president at the time, Viktor Yanukovych, fled to Russia. A lot of people lost their lives in demonstrations and during the Crimean invasion. I had never been a very political person, but I am patriotic and passionate about Ukraine. After 2014, I started to take more of an interest in politics. As a new business owner, I also felt more responsibility to understand what was going on.

MORE: Scenes from the war in Ukraine

At the beginning of this year, when there was talk of a Russian invasion, our students were coming to school scared and upset. We told them a bit about the political situation, encouraging them to think critically and not believe everything they saw in the news. We said if they had questions, they could ask us, but meanwhile, we should all stay strong and continue with our daily routines. It was heartbreaking to see the kids come to school so anxious. I was concerned about their mental health and well-being. 

At the beginning of February, a few students withdrew from our schools because their families decided to leave Ukraine. Two of my English teachers, who are American, had received letters from the American Embassy advising them to leave the country. I told them, “Don’t worry, nothing will happen in Ukraine. Don’t believe in these rumours.” My colleagues and I didn’t think a war could start. We just didn’t think it was possible.  

Life continued normally for a few weeks. On February 22, my sister, Iryna, and my brother-in-law travelled out of the country for work, and my parents came from Makariv to take care of my sister’s four- and five-year-old daughters. The same day, my older son, Amir, flew to Georgia with his girlfriend, Natasha, for a short vacation to celebrate his birthday. Then, on February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine.

In the early morning, around 4:35 a.m., I woke to a loud sound, like fireworks. It sounded like it was very close to our house, but when I looked outside, I didn’t see anything. I went on Facebook and read posts in my newsfeed about people seeing smoke and broken glass. I realized then that the sounds I’d heard were bombs. The war had started. Later, I learned that Russia had bombed a military base in a small town called Vasylkiv about 30 kilometres away. I was in shock. I’m usually able to keep a clear mind at times of stress, but this was too much. My body started shaking. I understood that I was in danger. 

I woke my husband and told him what I’d seen on Facebook. He was calmer than I was. He had lived through civil unrest in Lebanon, so he was familiar with war. My younger son, Nazar, didn’t understand what was going on, but he wasn’t scared. I don’t think he knew what to expect. I asked him to put some clothes on and stay calm while we figured out what was going on. 

"When I opened my eyes, I saw buildings destroyed, smoke and fires. I heard planes flying above us."

My parents and nieces were staying at Iryna’s house in a nearby apartment building, and Yasser and I decided they should all come to our house because we had a basement where everyone would be safer. I called my parents, waking them up. They were worried—they were responsible for two little girls. They didn’t expect the war to happen either. They didn’t even have their passports with them. What would happen if they had to leave the country? 

I phoned Amir in Georgia and told him that the war had started. He was silent on the phone for several moments. He couldn’t come back to Ukraine because the airports were closed, so he decided he and his girlfriend would fly to Beirut, where my mother-in-law lives.

I’m quite close with one of the principals at our schools, Marichka. She lives alone, so I asked my husband to pick her up with her dog, a Yorkshire terrier named Lola, and bring them to our house. When Marichka arrived, she and I prepared a letter to the parents saying that schools would go virtual. At nine o’clock, we went online with our students. Almost everyone was there for the call. We explained to the students that something bad had happened, and that we still didn’t know how to react. We encouraged them to be strong and listen to their parents. We said we would meet the next day and every day after that. Some of the kids were frightened, but being online and participating in the routine calmed them a little bit. I tried to keep a smile on my face and stay positive for the students. 

During the day, Marichka and Nazar sat on the floor with computers, doing virtual classes. My nieces also participated in lessons at our school. The older one was distressed, and I spent a lot of time reading to the girls and playing with them. The rest of the adults were in the kitchen watching news clips on YouTube. We learned that Russia had invaded Ukraine and parts of Kyiv had been heavily bombed. We were all worried, but we didn’t consider leaving—at least, not yet. My dad was watching TV. My mom was making cakes and soup. Cooking calms her down. I understood how important it was for everybody in the house, and also for my staff and students, that I stayed calm. The responsibility kept me grounded. 

Dib and Nazar, April 10th, 2022.

That first day of the war, my father had the idea to move our mattresses to the basement. We would all sleep there in case there was a bombing overnight. He gave everyone jobs. He and my husband went to the hardware store to buy an axe and shovels in case the house was bombed and we needed to dig ourselves out of the basement. Marichka and I drove to one of our schools. It was eerie; there was nobody outside and the streets were empty. We looked through the entire building to make sure nothing was looted or damaged, and we made a video to reassure the kids that everything was fine. We retrieved some gas masks and fire extinguishers from the school, and I distributed them to my neighbours. Back at home, we filled containers and bathtubs with water. We put together first aid kits. My husband drove to the grocery store to get food and passed by a gas station, but there were huge lines, so he couldn’t fill up the tank. 

The first two days were scary. Every time we heard loud noises and planes flying overhead, we ran down to the basement for safety. That happened a few times a day. We quickly got used to the sounds and realized we weren’t in immediate danger. Nazar said: “I will never leave my house. I will stay here. I’m brave. I’m not afraid.” He always told us, “Don’t worry, everything will be fine.” It’s part of his personality to be brave. If he falls down or fights with other boys, he’s always strong and calm and doesn’t cry. 

By then, Iryna and her husband had flown to Hungary. She begged my parents to bring the two girls out of Ukraine, but we didn’t know how to do it safely. It was too dangerous to drive and the rail stations were crowded with people fleeing the country. And so my sister came up with a plan. My brother-in-law has a relative who is in the army. On the fifth day of the war, he armed himself with a weapon and drove my parents and nieces to the train station. They waited for hours in the station and finally the four of them were able to board an evacuation train to Lviv. There were 14 people jammed in a car that normally seats four. For some reason, the train stopped for three or four hours in the middle of the journey. Nobody explained what was happening, which was very distressing. One of my nieces cried a lot; it was hard for my parents to calm her down. When they arrived in Lviv, a friend of my parents was able to drive everyone to Hungary, where they reunited with Iryna and her husband. Thankfully, the customs officers in Hungary allowed my parents to enter the country temporarily without their passports.

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Once they left, it was just Nazar, Yasser, Marichka, Lola and me at our house. As the days passed, our courage was depleting. I remember waking up early on March 1, the sixth day of the war, and going outside. It was cold and the sky was still dark. The pain of the past few days was weighing me down. I had been thinking a lot about a cousin of mine who was trapped in Makariv with her husband and son. We had lost contact with them and I was worried. I imagined what it would be like if our house was bombed or if my family was hurt. In my mind, these possibilities didn’t seem realistic. Somewhere deep inside, I believed everything would be fine. But I also realized that I was a mother first. I had to think not only about my home and my work but my own child as well. 

Nearly all of my husband’s friends had left. This convinced him that we should go, too. The roads surrounding Kyiv were becoming dangerous. A Russian military convoy was 25 to 30 kilometres from the city’s centre. We needed to leave immediately or we could be trapped. We didn’t know where we were going to go, but we knew we had to get out and we had to do it that day.  

Dib with her mother and sister on vacation in Cyprus.
Dib with her mother and sister on vacation in Cyprus. (Photograph provided by Yaroslava)

My husband said I had 15 minutes to pack a bag. I went to my room and gathered some documents: our passports, my diplomas, our birth certificates and our marriage certificate. I packed one extra pair of jeans, one coat and two T-shirts. Then I packed some clothes for Nazar. 

We were still out of gas, but thankfully, my dad had left his car at our house and his tank was full. My husband learned that one of his friends from Lebanon was still in Ukraine and wanted to get out, so we picked him up as we left the city. Our journey began around 8 a.m. My husband’s friend drove. Yasser was in the passenger seat and I rode in the back with Marichka, Nazar and Lola.

We had to pass through many checkpoints in Kyiv. There were civilian forces protecting the roads of the city. They asked us for our names and where we were going and if we were carrying any weapons. I was so scared that I kept my eyes closed the entire time, praying for our safety. I held Nazar’s hand tightly. He was very calm, though I think even he was a little afraid; he was shaking a bit. I told him that everything would be fine and to think about positive things. When I opened my eyes, I saw buildings destroyed, smoke and fires. I heard planes flying above us. 

"My colleagues and I didn’t think a war could start. We just didn’t think it was possible."

Once we got out of the city, my husband phoned a friend and learned about a rehabilitation clinic in a town called Khmilnyk, about 250 kilometres from Kyiv, where we could stay overnight. That friend had just driven to the clinic a few hours earlier and said the route was safe. 

We arrived at the rehab centre around 9 p.m. They offered us a meal of chicken and rice in the cafeteria. I should have been hungry—I hadn’t eaten all day. But the stress destroyed my appetite. I had a few bites and didn’t even think about the taste of the food. I’m a vegetarian and this was the first time I had eaten meat in 15 years. 

At the clinic, we all relaxed a little bit. We stayed in two rooms that had two beds each—my husband and his friend in one room, and me, Nazar and Marichka in the other. It was the first time since the invasion that I wasn’t woken up by bombing or planes flying overhead in the middle of the night. I slept very well. 

The next morning, we got back in the car and drove south to Moldova. The roads were practically empty, and we made it to the border in three hours. The guards were kind to us. They gave us some food and water. 

I felt safe after crossing into Moldova, but I also felt deep sorrow about the situation in Ukraine. I had tears in my eyes whenever I thought about my homeland: the people who were still there and the ones who had died, the buildings being destroyed and what my future would look like. I didn’t know when I would come back.

READ: My love for the giant that is Ukraine

At this point, we still didn’t have a solid plan. We drove through Moldova and into Romania. While driving, we decided we should go to Beirut, where Amir and his girlfriend were. After a night in Romania, we drove for another full day to Debrecen, a town just over the border in Hungary, where we were reunited with my parents, Iryna, her husband and their daughters.

Seeing my family again was incredibly emotional. There were many tears. We didn’t say anything for a long time; we just hugged and held each other. My mom and Iryna cried; my dad was silent. The two little girls were jumping up and down and hugging me and Nazar. I was so relieved to see everyone again and to know we were safe. 

We all stayed in an Airbnb in Debrecen for a night, and then my dad drove my sister and her family to Italy, where they had a friend from Makariv. I didn’t know when we would see each other again. 

Yaroslava and Nazar, April 10th, 2022.

My son, my husband, Marichka and I took the train to Budapest, where we bought tickets to fly to Beirut the next day. Unfortunately, we couldn’t bring Lola, but we found an animal shelter in Budapest that was able to look after her. There were lots of tears when Marichka said goodbye to Lola.

We arrived in Beirut around 3 a.m. Amir and Natasha came to pick us up. When he saw us coming out of the airport, Amir started waving and calling, “Mom, mom!” We were overwhelmed to see each other after so much trauma and separation. I hugged him and told him how much I had missed him. The next day, in the excitement of the family reunion, Amir proposed to Natasha. We were thrilled to celebrate their engagement. 

My husband’s friend went to stay with his family and the rest of us slept at Yasser’s mother’s apartment. She only gets about two hours of electricity a day and no internet. So on our first morning in Beirut, Marichka and I went to Starbucks to join our school meetings. Most students and teachers were still in Western Ukraine, but some were in places like Poland, Germany, France, Cyprus or Greece. Marichka and I prepared for this day carefully. We wrote a speech to tell our staff and students how happy we were to see them and how much we missed them.

It was very cold in Beirut, only five or six degrees Celsius indoors, and the apartment had no heating. We slept in our pyjamas and coats under three blankets. After six nights, we realized Beirut wasn’t the best place for us to stay long-term. It was intolerably cold, and the limited electricity and internet in the house made it difficult for me to do my job. Yasser and I decided that Nazar and I, who both have Canadian citizenship, would fly to Toronto, where Yasser’s brother lives. Yasser would stay in Beirut and Marichka, Amir and Natasha would go back to Budapest, where Natasha’s mother was staying. It was difficult for me to leave my family again, but it helped knowing that Marichka, Amir and Natasha would stay together. They are now sharing a two-bedroom apartment, and Marichka was able to reunite with Lola. 

Nazar and I arrived in Toronto on March 23. A friend picked me up from the airport. She’s Ukrainian-Canadian and had visited my schools in Kyiv a few years ago. Her son is the same age as Nazar, and they used to talk to each other on FaceTime. It was nice to see them, but I felt depressed. When we landed, all I could see were grey skies, yellow grass and empty streets. My friend drove us to an apartment in Mississauga, which my brother-in-law owns and usually rents out. He had set up some basic furniture for us, and my friend went and got us groceries. 

Dib with her father, Amir, Iryna and nieces in her backyard garden at home in Kyiv.

For the first several days, Nazar told me every hour that he wanted to go home. He said, “I want my brother and my father. I want to be with my family again.” It helped him that we had my friend and her son for support. Nazar now attends a school 10 minutes away from the apartment where there are many other students from Ukraine. People from the area donated school uniforms, stationery, backpacks and school supplies for the kids who had fled the war. It was heartwarming to see the community come together for us.

On Friday, March 25, two days after we arrived in Toronto, I went back online for our school’s morning meeting. Because of the time difference with Ukraine, I had to be up at 3 a.m. It became hard to wake up so early every day, so now I only make it to the morning meeting twice a week. I still see Marichka online, which helps me feel less alone. We meet for two or three hours every day. 

It’s been reassuring for our students to have some routine and familiarity by continuing their lessons online and seeing their teachers and friends, even though everyone is still scared about the war. Several schools in my hometown, Makariv, have been destroyed, so we’re connecting with students there and including them in our online lessons. In between classes, our teachers are making meals for soldiers and sewing camouflage netting for the army. This is a big strength of our nation. We have big hearts and we always want to help. We like to give more than we take. 

My days are now full of meetings and organizing humanitarian aid. I have close friends who are doctors and nurses at hospitals in Ukraine that are running out of medical supplies. I’m coordinating with teachers in Western Ukraine to purchase supplies and ship them to the hospitals through the postal service, which is thankfully still running. Parents from my schools in Ukraine are sending donations for medical supplies, and I’m contributing what I can from my savings. 

MORE: What it takes to truly fight for freedom in Ukraine

Nazar is doing well at his new school, but he’s still struggling. The other day, while he was putting on his new school uniform, he told me with tears in his eyes how much he wished he was putting on his old Ukrainian school uniform and going back to his old school. It was painful to see—he usually doesn’t cry. Every day he asks me when we can go back home. He says he is saving his money, and when we get back to Ukraine he is going to buy flowers for President Zelensky as a thank you for his bravery.  

Our move to Canada isn’t permanent. We’ll stay here until the end of Nazar’s school year and hopefully return in the summer if things are better in Ukraine. Neighbours often send me photos of my house and every time I see it, I cry. I talk to my house and say, “Please, just wait until I’m back.” Soon I will go to my backyard and I will water the plants and trees in my garden.

Before the war, I was a strong, happy, enthusiastic person. I never cried. Now, I cry every day. I feel sorrow and sadness in a way I’ve never felt before. The other day, I went to a Ukrainian store and bought some Ukrainian chocolates and sweets. I ate them and wept. It’s as if these sweets are a part of my land. I miss it so much, this feeling of home.

This article appears in print in the June 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Worlds away from home.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.