A family’s escape from Ukraine to a new life in Sarnia

Iryna and George Pietersen and their two-year-old twins, Jane and George. “I cried as I packed the twins’ clothes and when I looked out the window I saw Russian planes overhead,” Iryna said of the family’s hasty departure from Ukraine. Cathy Dobson

Cathy Dobson

The line of cars and buses approaching the Polish border was 25 kilometers long.

For two seemingly endless days, Iryna and George Pietersen tried to distract their twin toddlers when distant shells rattled the car, reaffirming their decision to leave Ukraine.

“It was crazy,” said Iryna Pietersen. “I was so scared.”

They had left their homeland in Zhytomyr in a hurry, unaware that the border would be secured with others fleeing the Russian invasion. Food and water were running out.

It was February 26, two days after Russian forces began attacking military bases, including that in Zhytomyr, a town of 280,000 in north-western Ukraine.

“No one believed there was going to be a war,” said George, a 63-year-old retired businessman originally from South Africa.

“But we woke up at 5 a.m. on February 24th to the noise of the bombs hitting our city. I had a very bad feeling and wanted out.”

Iryna Pietersen, 41, cried as she packed clothes for her two-year-old twins. Looking out the window, she was stunned to see Russian planes overhead.

A neighbor agreed to take the family’s 10-year-old dog. But Iryna’s mother refused to join them.

“Mom didn’t want to go. She said, “Where should I go? This is my home,’” her daughter said. But a few weeks later, the shelling got so bad that her mother was evacuated to the Czech Republic.

Meanwhile, the car ran out of fuel while queuing at the Polish border. But they managed to find a gas station and refuel 60 kilometers from the border.

“We were the lucky ones,” said George Pietersen. “Many others had to walk and carry what they could.”

In the weeks that followed, the couple realized they weren’t going home anytime soon and needed to find a place to start a new life. As it turned out, that location was Sarnia, Ontario.

“We knew nothing about Canada,” said Iryna Pietersen.

The couple, who speak English, were thinking about Ireland when noticing an online post from the Canadian government. It was said that visa applications were being accepted from Ukrainian refugees. Her husband happened to have a nephew in Sarnia, and when Mark offered Jupin his house and a car, they gratefully accepted. They arrived in mid-April, work visas in hand.

“I’ve never asked for alms in my life and it’s very difficult,” said George Pietersen. “We had an amazing life in Ukraine, our home was Iryna’s dream house, our cars, a nanny… we were blessed.

“And it all changed in the blink of an eye.”

The couple cannot look at pictures of the war. It’s too painful. Neighbors say their house is intact despite the bombing, but they have little hope, if any, of returning any time soon.

They say they are determined to reestablish themselves and give stability to their children.

They acknowledge their nephew, the Save Ukraine – Sarnia and Lambton County volunteers on Facebook, and a local Service Ontario worker named Tanyea Myers for helping with donations of household items, clothing, and assisting with the paperwork required for OHIP cards. SIN numbers and bank accounts.

The twins get free childcare three days a week, allowing the couple to look for work, but on-site places are limited.

“I called every daycare center I could find – 18 of them – and explained our story and I found one that will take the kids. It’s amazing,” said Iryna Pietersen.

She is looking for work as an accountant or administrative assistant. He has a background in steel making and is hoping to find a job to match.

“A lot of tears flow and it’s emotional when we think about our home,” said George Pietersen.

“But what we left behind is gone.”

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