If you really want to help — nothing is impossible, says Olena Tykhonovska.
Not even opening up your home to two pets and three strangers, connecting them with the help they need, and helping them navigate a country where they have no family, no jobs, and no English.
Generosity came easily to the east Saint John resident when she saw a post by Valeriia Silchenko, 27, Yevheniia Budkevych, 28, and Mykhailo Rassokha, 32, on a Facebook group for Atlantic Canadians hosting Ukranians.
“I just feel like it’s my family,” said Tykhonovska, who came to New Brunswick from Ukraine in 2017 and brought her mother to Canada last year.
“I sent them a message saying ‘Guys, don’t worry. You don’t know me yet. But I will come to Moncton, to Fredericton, Saint John, whenever you land. I will come to grab you and give you a meal and where to sleep.'”
The three newcomers are part of a recent swell of immigration to Saint John, which has been fuelled in part by refugees. According to data released by Statistics Canada in early 2023, Saint John’s population grew by 1,759 residents between July 2022 and January 2023.
This increase marks the fastest growth the city has experienced in decades.
For the young Ukranians and other refugees arriving in New Brunswick every week, survival in Canada comes down to hard work — and community support.
From Donetsk, to Kiev, to Saint John
For Silchenko, Budkevych, and Rassokha, the introduction to New Brunswick came after a long and difficult journey.
All three grew up in Donetsk, part of Ukraine’s wider Donbas region that has been gripped by rebel fighting since 2014. Valeriia and Yevheniia are lifelong friends who attended the same kindergarten and lived on the same street as children. Yevheniia and Mykhailo were school sweethearts who married when they were just 15 and 18 years old.
In October 2014, as armed conflict in the Donbas region escalated, Valeriia was wounded by shrapnel in the leg when a shell landed in the grocery store where she was shopping.
“After a couple of years of war situation over there, we decided to move to a more safe place,” said Mykhailo Rassokha, speaking through a translator. They chose Kiev, which they believed would be safe from the fighting.
In February 2022, “once we started to feel more comfortable in the place, another war came,” he said.
After reading online about Canada and the East Coast, Budkevych said they decided it was time to “start our new life from the beginning — maybe some good people will help, some job we will find.”
On March 18, the three packed up their pets and a few bags and embarked together on the 6,694-kilometre journey from Kiev to Saint John.
From the big city, to a warm Maritime welcome
Their first introduction to Canada was Toronto’s Pearson Airport, which “didn’t welcome us very nicely,” said Rassokha. “It was a big city, a big crowd.”
They discovered the airline wouldn’t allow their Yorkshire terrier, Ksusha, and cat Persik — “Peach” in English — on the flight to New Brunswick. Leaving their animals behind with two helpful airport workers, and boarding the flight to Saint John, they questioned whether Canada was the right decision.
“Maybe it’s not our country, maybe it’s not our people,” Rassokha thought.
But the energy changed as soon as they arrived at the Moncton airport, he said. They were surprised to see people smiling and joking around.
“Even the airport worker in Moncton was like, ‘OK, guys, hello, how are you!’ Like in Ukraine, no one asks ‘How are you?’ and not in Toronto,” he said.
First normal night
The next morning, Tykhonovska drove to Moncton to collect them, making good on her promise. Once they arrived in Saint John, she said, they had “their first normal night like home.”
Reuniting the pets with their owners was the next order of business. With Tykhonovska’s help, they managed to find a truck driver willing to transport Ksusha and Persik from Toronto all the way to Oromocto.
“From the first moment: taking a taxi, making accommodations, people were helping us,” Rassohka said. “I didn’t expect that some stranger would help even one person — but three of us, with pets, with problems.
“Before we went to Canada, people said Canada is like a wonderland,” Budkevych said. “Once you go out from the plane, it will be money and green trees and everything will be good.”
While the reality isn’t quite that idyllic, she said, she is “really happy we found a place where we can all stay, where there is no aggression from people or any other states.”
With help from their new Canadian friends, the three moved into their own apartment on April 4.
Budkevych also realized a dream she’d harboured since first reading about the East Coast: seeing the Atlantic Ocean.
She always wanted to “live and raise kids by the oceanside,” she said. “This is exactly the same as what I was dreaming about all those long years.”
There are a lot of hurdles ahead: furnishing an apartment, learning English, and starting the search for work.
Silchenko hopes to continue her education. Budkevych is curious about work in the aquaculture industry. Rassohka hopes to work as a cable technician, as he did back home.
“Just be happy,” he said. “Have a regular, normal life. Work, kids, home. Not go to bed and be guessing, ‘Will you die today?’ This is the main point of why we decided to go to Canada.”
Tykhonovska said she will continue to help. It’s the New Brunswick way.
“We have to keep people in New Brunswick,” she said. “We need to show the support of how I was welcomed in 2017 when I came here. People tried to give me some meal, some accommodations. At that time I felt really, really great support from our community — from people who I didn’t know at all.”
“This is a place where real Canadians live,” Budkevych said. “You can feel warm hearts, warm feelings, and know what real Canadian life looks like in Saint John.”