Prairie Post (West Edition)
Ukrainian sisters starting new life in Lethbridge
A Ukrainian who is now a local resident has shared her journey from her home country to Lethbridge in hopes of thanking the community for welcoming her and her sister.
Ukrainian sisters Medina Kononenko and Anna Vovk have been in Lethbridge since April 2022, but their journey started in the Zaporizhia region in Ukraine back in February.
“21 February was one of the worst days I ever had in my life. We heard the airplane sirens, everything was so loud, first time I heard them. It was six in the morning and we couldn’t understand what was going on,” said Kononenko.
She said some of her husband’s friends from Kharkiv called them to let them know the Russian invasion was coming. Kononenko recalls calling her friends asking if it was true, what to do, and where to go as she did not understand what was happening.
She explained that in her home country they did not have basements, and therefore they had nowhere to hide within their own home, but they had a different place where they could hide.
“We went there, we spent a couple hours there without any kind of food, without any kind of water because we took only our documents and there was fear everywhere and nobody knows what’s going on,” said Kononenko.
She said they had nowhere to go, as many places around them were getting bombed and it was too risky to go anywhere.
“Our lives were very nice, but one day everything changed,” said Kononenko.
Kononenko said her parents were very worried about the safety of the two sisters, as their parents are police officers in Ukraine and would be targeted. They told her they wanted the sisters to move to another country.
“When your parents are policemen, they would be the first people if they would find them they would kill them and their family and friends,” said Kononenko.
She said when she realized that Canada was giving Ukrainian people the opportunity to come, she looked into it and did her paperwork.
“I thought it would be like maybe two weeks or something like that so I would have some time to pack our luggage and everything, but I signed everything March 13 and on the 14th the Government of Canada gave me an opportunity to give my biometrics, but I needed to do it in Europe,” said Kononenko.
She said that took her by surprise and she started to think about delaying her trip, so she consulted with her mom who convinced her to do it.
“She said no time for waiting because they’re moving so fast and they could take our town and you cannot leave,” said Kononenko. She said at that point smaller cities in the Zaporizhia region had Russian flags so it was time to go.
Kononenko said she knew they had to leave the next day but was unsure on what to take with her other than her documents.
“I lived 30 years in Ukraine, I had everything. I didn’t know what to take with me,” said Kononenko. Her mom suggested to take some clothes to have before buying some here. She said the sisters travelled with two small suitcases and whatever they were able to fit in them.
“We took the train the next day to a town near Lviv in the north side of Ukraine, and called my mom the next day and she said they bombed our railway station. If we didn’t take the train and waited, the next day we wouldn’t be able to leave our town,” said Kononenko.
From there they went to Budapest in Hungary to stay with their uncle waiting for the paperwork to be finalized to come to Canada.
“And then was the hardest decision, so Canada approved our visas, and we didn’t know where to go. Canada is a big country, there’s so many provinces so what to do the next?” said Kononenko.
The sisters initially chose Toronto, Ont. She said she posted about her sister and herself needing a job, a place to live and general help on how to start their lives in Canada.
Meanwhile in Lethbridge, Catherine Tompkins was in need of in-home care and her daughter Lisa Tompkins was looking for two caregivers to move in with her 99-year-old mother.
As fate would have it, one day in early April, while working at her family’s store Tompkins Jewellers, a friend stopped by to ask about her mother who recently had a fall. It was while discussing her need for in-home care that Lisa’s friend recommended her looking into hiring people who needed help after arriving from Ukraine.
“It was very quick, I think Audrey came in on a Monday, I posted the ad on Tuesday and I think Medina answered Tuesday night or Wednesday and then I requested her CVs. I think we had our FaceTime Thursday,” said Tompkins.
She said that at the end of her call, she felt like the girls were the right fit and immediately wanted to hire them.
Kononenko said she felt like they found their ‘Canadian mom’ in Lisa.
“She was like so shiny, like the person I saw her and it’s like something warm that you feel in your soul, so it is our person,” said Kononenko.
The day after their conversation Tompkins bought them plane tickets to Calgary and picked them up at the airport. Once in Lethbridge multiple people from the community, including those involved with Project Sunflower, have helped them in many ways. Kononenko said it was always her dream to live in a small city and she is very grateful to be able to call Lethbridge home.
“My husband is in Ukraine now, so we are separated for half a year,” said Kononenko. But even though they are not together, she said she hopes one day he will come and they can raise a family in this welcoming community.
Kononeko said she and her sister have a work permit for three years, but they are hopeful that they can stay after going through the required immigration process.
“The people are so kind, everybody always asking how are you, did you need some help? Nice place with great people and we are so thankful for this,” said Kononenko.
Tompkins said the whole family is very happy to have the girls living with her mom as they were the perfect fit for her.
“I couldn’t possibly ask for anything better, and we sense that mom is actually getting younger as the days go by, having two lovely joyful girls to take care of her,” said Tompkin