At Maidan Market in Ottawa’s Westgate Mall, Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian invasion of their country can find everything they need.
Some of these items – clothes, food, diapers and other necessities – fit perfectly in a basket.
Others – safety, comfort, and a sense of community despite the distance from home – may not fit the bill, but are no less important.
I cried every day, really. Now I can also help someone.-Inna Savska
The store, a volunteer-driven initiative spearheaded by the Ottawa Chapter of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) in partnership with mall owner RioCan, celebrated its grand opening on Monday.
There are clothes racks for men, women and children, as well as toys and books in Ukrainian. At the end of a hall, other rooms contain shelves filled with non-perishable food, diapers and enough personal hygiene products to stock a Shoppers Drug Mart.
There are comfortable places to sit and resources at the ready for Ukrainians seeking help with translation, OHIP coverage and mental health support.
Everything is free and everything is requested.
On opening day, the store was buzzing with shoppers and volunteers, most of whom spoke Ukrainian. A little girl with a long braid of brown hair moved enthusiastically from one shelf to another, filling her bag with coloring books and crayons.
Nearby, two women browsed the selection of baby clothes, looking for sizes for newborns.
Olya arrived in Ottawa from Kyiv two weeks ago, and in a week or two she will give birth. Her husband, a member of the Ukrainian army, remained behind. (CBC has agreed not to release their surnames for their protection.)
Olya said she and her husband decided it was time for her to flee their home near the hard-hit suburb of Irpin once the threat of a chemical attack became terrifyingly real.
When a woman in Ottawa offered him a place to live, Olya jumped at the chance to flee to Canada.
“To protect the baby, I had to go,” she said through an interpreter. “Obviously it’s very different being here, but I’m focused on important things like knowing I can have my baby safely.”
Looking around the store, Olya said she was amazed by the generosity displayed.
“I’m hugely grateful, hugely impressed with what’s available here. While a lot of Canadians would say it’s the least they can do, in reality for a lot of people it’s so, so.”
Refugee turned volunteer
Inna Savska arrived in Ottawa with her mother and daughter in mid-March after fleeing Russian bombardment in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city. On Monday, she worked her first volunteer shift at the Maidan market.
“Because I want to help Ukrainians, because I want to meet Ukrainians here to talk to them,” Savska said.
Often the conversation turns to their homes in Ukraine – in particular, who is still up and who is not.
Using a home monitoring app on her cell phone, Savska nervously checks her own neat white home, pointing sadly at the plum tree that has just started to bloom.
“We try to stay positive. It’s a bit difficult, but what can we do? she sighs.
Savska said volunteering at the Maidan market has helped her not to think about the terrible danger at home, where her husband is.
“I was crying every day, really. Now I can help someone too.”
“A National Thing”
Savska’s cousin, Anna Plugatyr, who came to Canada 22 years ago, said accepting charity does not come naturally to many Ukrainians.
“It’s just a national thing. I think we see ourselves more as hosts than as people who will accept help ourselves,” she said.
“How do you rethink this whole idea that now you’re the one with nothing, and now you’re the one who needs to look for stuff?” Plugatyr asked, glancing at his cousin.
“I can see this transition that Inna is ready to give back and feel like she is in this position of helping and welcoming again.”
Olenka Reshitnyk-Bastian, coordinator of the Ottawa chapter of UCC and the driving force behind the Maidan market, described another Ukrainian volunteer who seemed reluctant to take donated goods for herself.
“I asked her why, and she said, ‘I just witnessed such evil in Ukraine that I find it hard to understand the good,'” said Reshitnyk-Bastian, who speaks Ukrainian. and is a volunteer herself.
On Monday, the woman returned to the store to pick up some things she needed.
Volunteers made it happen
Many of the items on offer at the store are leftovers from a previous donation drive, a testament to this “fiercely giving community,” Reshitnyk-Bastian said, noting that it was that same spirit of generosity that made the grand opening from Monday such a success.
“A hundred people in two days put this together. I literally got the keys Thursday. It was empty Friday night,” she said. “It works, it’s amazing.”
Katia Kolomiiets is another such volunteer. Kolomiiets and her children, Nastya, 10, and Dani, 5, also found refuge in Ottawa after war forced them from their home in Poltava, about 140 kilometers west of Kharkiv.
The children are already enrolled in school and making new friends, she said.
“I am very happy that they are safe here,” Kolomiiets said.
“My daughter said that she was finally not afraid to sleep anymore, because in Ukraine when you sleep [you’re often woken by] sirens and you have to take refuge in a shelter to protect yourself from the missiles.”
Kolomiiets, whose husband also stayed behind to defend their country against Russian invaders, considers herself lucky because she and her children were welcomed to Ottawa by relatives who provided everything they needed.
“Now I want to help people who have nothing,” she said.