Iryna Ilienko’s life has been turned upside down. The mother of two fled Ukraine with her daughters, leaving her husband behind in the war-torn country. Now, in Canada, there is not a day that goes by when Iryna doesn’t miss and think about him.
A year ago, it was six in the morning when the phone woke her up. The first words she heard were, “the war has started.” This was a breaking moment of a day in Iryna’s life, and that of her family, that would change everything.
Shock and disbelief silenced her, and helplessness became an overwhelming front.
“I was in so much panic and just not ready,” she said.
Iryna managed to find temporary shelter with her husband Denys, and her two daughters Alina (20) and Uliana (10) with the help of her brother, Yuryi. The first two weeks turned into an unbearable wait — a relentless hope that the war would be over tomorrow.
With five minutes to decide, she knew she had to make a radical decision, and she had to make it quick.
While waiting at Kiev’s train station, flooded with hundreds of other Ukrainians, Iryna and her daughters had an emotional farewell from her husband, Denys. While she was fighting for a spot in the overcrowded train, the 12-hour journey to Lviv become a lifeline for many Ukrainian refugees. Watching people crammed in, shoulder to shoulder with no light or bathrooms, and a minimal sense of orientation was an unforgettable experience.
Parting from the life they once knew, they were now like many people who had said goodbye to the last days of their life as they had known it. Hope was their pathway, and Canada was the horizon of their goal destination.
In Canada, Ukrainian family friends were already waiting, ready to receive them. Welcomed warmly, Iryna settled quickly and immediately looked and applied for work.
She had a beating desire for some normalcy and learning to lean into her strengths. “It was very important for me that when I arrived here that I stayed connected to my profession.”
Only a few weeks later, Iryna started working for Future Fields, a biotech company in Edmonton. “Everything around you is new and a learning experience…yet, I was very happy that I found work so fast that was in my profession,” she said.
Along this journey, Hromada Cooperative Housing became an important building block in her life in Edmonton. With the help of many people along the way, Iryna and her family had the chance to rebuild in Canada.
“Sometimes you get melancholic over the life you had, where you came from and you just want to drop everything and go back”
As the one-year anniversary approaches since Iryna’s arrival, she has slowly adjusted to her new life here, despite separation from her husband and her other daughter Alina, who left for Germany to pursue her music career as a violinist.
She looks up and says, “It’s not easy to throw everything away again and return back. Of course we miss everything, family, and the home. I just know that I can’t just sit around and do nothing, we just don’t know when this war ends. All I know is I couldn’t have sat around for this year and just waited for something to happen.”
Iryna Ilienko isn’t sure when or if she will ever be able to return to her home in Ukraine, but most importantly, she dreams about reuniting with her husband Denys soon. “Men in Ukraine can’t leave right now. That is why we miss him so much,” she says. “But we are not losing hope.”
Many connections and people on the journey from Ukraine to Canada have helped Iryna and her family through the difficulties she faced. Adjusting to a new reality and a new life can leave people wondering what they might come back to. Iryna’s motherly resilience, a desire to protect her children, and her hope gave her the persistence to rebuild a life in Canada.
“I have gotten used to my life here in Canada more,” she says. “I try to see the positives more. For me, it is very important that my daughter Uliana continues living a full life.”
Photo by: Kristina Felker