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From Ukraine to Maple Creek

Posted on August 18, 2022 by Maple Creek
New Life: Mariana Ozymok, 22, is living in Maple Creek, enjoying a respite from the daily tension of the Russo-Ukrainian war that escalated in February with a full-scale invasion.

It is a sound that chills people to the bone, making them glance instinctively at the sky.
WEE-oww-WEE-oww …
Mariána Ozymok may be only 22, but she knows only too well an air raid siren’s all-pervasive wail.
She has experienced it repeatedly in Lviv, the western Ukrainian city where she was raised. It has a disorientating effect, creating a feeling of vulnerability.
“It is so loud, it’s very scary,” says Mariána. “You think ‘will they drop bombs on your head today?’ You don’t know.
“There are no shelters to run to. We weren’t prepared for this, so there’s nowhere to go. If you are in a café or grocery store, then you have somewhere to hide, but if you are in transit, they won’t stop, there’s nothing you can do.
“You just listen and pray that nothing will happen. You can hear the siren across the whole city. Lots of people also have a siren on their phones, which is not so loud.”
In the early months of Russia’s invasion, Lviv, the cultural soul of Ukraine and a symbol of Ukrainian nationalism, was largely unscathed by the war. It was seen as a relatively safe hub through which tens of thousands of people fled to neighbouring Poland after enduring weeks of strikes in cities like Kyiv, Kharkiv and Mariupol. Humanitarian groups, foreign diplomats and journalists considered the city a haven.
Nevertheless, many of Lviv’s 700,000 inhabitants feared an attack was only a matter of time.
Those fears proved justified in March, when long-range Russian missiles destroyed a fuel base, wounding five. Cruise missiles fired from the direction of the Black Sea also slammed into an aircraft repair plant, sending a mushroom-shaped plume of smoke into the sky.
In April, Russia struck again. This time several people were killed and 11 injured as missiles rained down on three warehouses and a car garage, where a group of workers had gathered for an early morning coffee.
The strikes – hundreds of miles from the front line in the east – shattered a sense of security in the west of the country, leaving residents in shock and making them take air raid sirens even more seriously.
Although Mariána lived in the outskirts of Lviv, anxiety percolated through the protection from being in the countryside.
“No, I didn’t feel safe in Lviv,” she says.
Lviv, whose historical heart boasts old buildings and cobblestone streets, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site, had been Mariána’s home all her life. She loved the lifestyle there, from socializing in the many cafés to swimming in one of the lakes.
“We are known as a city of coffee and chocolate,” she smiles.
Those who like hiking can visit the mountainous terrain in the south, and highlands further north in the Precarpathian area.
Mariána’s parents Yurie and Hanna, and sister Anna, 16, were also wedded to Lviv. There was nowhere else they would prefer to be than in their country house, with the chickens, cow and family dog.
After graduating from high school, Mariána enrolled in a five-year Master’s Degree course in English Language at Ivan Franko National University of Lviv. She hopes to complete her studies by December, 2022, although whether she can do so remotely is unclear.
When Vladimir Putin sent Russian forces into Ukraine on February 24, Mariána was already taking classes online because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yurie, an engineer/driver, immediately threw himself into the Ukraine Army’s war effort, while Hanna devoted her time to baking.
Although Mariána didn’t see first-hand the horrors visited on her country, she learned about them from friends, classmates, and stories on her computer.
“I didn’t see any planes, but I know people who did see them. They spoke of a big noise and were scared. The rockets come down from the sky, and you don’t know where they will fall.”
Ukraine’s air defence system intercepts many rockets, but some still get through.
Schools and universities are not immune from bombs and shells, with the war disrupting the education of 7.5 million children living in Ukraine at the start of 2022. Many classrooms are now unusable, destroyed by airstrikes, while some are being employed for military purposes. In besieged Mariupol, the university grounds were turned into a makeshift graveyard.
Then there are the reports of Ukrainian soldiers being tortured after falling into enemy hands.
For Mariána, the instability became increasingly hard to bear.
She had already endured eight years of tension. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, and Russian-backed separatists seized part of the Donbas region in south-eastern Ukraine, triggering a regional conflict.
The February invasion, following a massive military build-up, was a major escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian war, embroiling much of the country.
“I was tired of the war and the whole situation,” says Mariána.
Eventually, she made the heart-rending decision to leave Ukraine. Thanks to her proficiency in English, the idea of relocating to a country like Canada seemed realistic.
“I always wanted to go to Canada,” she says.
In April, she began applying to emigrate through the CUAET program (Canada-Ukraine Authorizing for Emergency Travel). She needed a visa, along with a passport.
“In Ukraine, we didn’t have the opportunity to get a visa because the Canadian consulate office was closed as a result of the war. Fortunately, I have a cousin in Poland who helped me get a visa.”
Through another program, Mariána managed to secure a job at Cobble Creek Lodge in Maple Creek. She got a three-year work permit.
What did her parents think about her plan to leave Ukraine?
“They wanted to have a good life in Ukraine, but now it’s war and so hard to live there. They wanted me to go somewhere that is safe.
“My parents don’t want to go anywhere themselves. I didn’t want to leave Lviv, since I have lots of friends and relatives in Lviv.”
As for her sister Anna, she has to stay in Ukraine to study. Only 16, she would need her parents’ permission to leave the country.
“It would be hard for her to come to Canada. To study in Canada is expensive and you need to speak English.”
On June 19, Mariána left Lviv. The city’s airport was closed, so she went on an eight-hour bus ride to Warsaw, Poland’s capital.
“I had a backpack and a suitcase. I took some warm clothes because I know the temperature in Canada can fall to -30. In Ukraine it might get as low as -15, but generally it is warmer. I also took a laptop.”
From Warsaw, Mariána flew to Lisbon in Portugal – it was the first time she had flown – her emotions a mixture of sadness at leaving her loved ones, relief at escaping a war, and uncertainty over what lay ahead.
She flew to Toronto, then on to Calgary, where Pat Mason, owner of Cobble Creek Lodge, picked her up and drove her to Maple Creek. The date was June 22.
One of her predominant sentiments since arriving in Canada has been a sense of peace and calm.
“The people here are friendly and kind,” she says. “Canada has its own culture and habits. There is stability here.”
Mariána works at the front desk at Cobble Creek Lodge – ideal for practising her English skills. Inna, meanwhile, is working at Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park.
In late July, the pair whose friendship was forged by conflict, found a place to live in Maple Creek.
A Facebook appeal for donations – bed, bed frame, bedding, kitchen items, dressers, bathroom garbage can and shower curtain – to help them settle into their new home prompted an outpouring of goodwill.
“We are so thankful for the help,” says Mariána.
Help too is what her country continues to need. Unfortunately, help from the west is slow in arriving. Most needed are weapons.
Through social media platforms like Instagram, Mariána is in touch with Yurie, Hanna and Anna every day. She also keeps regular contact with friends.
They give her updates on family life – and the war.
In July, a Russian missile strike destroyed the Pedagogical University in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, killing a guard. The main building, lecture hall, museum and scientific library were wrecked.
Mariána also learned about a horrific photo being circulated online. It shows the head of a Ukrainian prisoner of war stuck on a pole outside a house. The image prompted more accusations that Russian troops have engaged in barbaric medieval behaviour.
“Russian soldiers want to torture the Ukrainian people,” says Mariána.
It is not all bad news.
So far, Ivan Franko National University of Lviv, the oldest institution of higher learning in Ukraine dating from the 1600s, has escaped rockets; and artillery from Western allies has proven to be effective.
“I think things are getting better,” says Mariána.
Her optimism reflects the resilience of her home city, Lviv, whose historical heart survived Soviet and German occupations during the Second World War.
While Mariána’s long-term future is impossible to predict, she holds on to a dream of returning to Lviv.
“I like it in Maple Creek,” she says. “But, of course, I miss my parents and family so much. I hope to return to Ukraine one day and teach. My heart is for ever in Ukraine.”

Mariana seen in Ivan Franko National University of Lviv in 2021 with a diploma, part of her English language studies.

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