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Ukrainian makes home in Calgary, faces the loss of homeland

The journey of the immigrant to the true north strong and free is filled with challenge, and sometimes tragedy, but still holds the hope that even in escaping war, life must go on. 

That is the essence of Olena Laba who left her bustling city of Kyiv, Ukraine in April 2022 to make a home in Canada. She jokes she read about the land of the Maple Leaf and CN Tower while on the flight from Germany to Toronto.

The big city life was a challenge for her and other Ukrainians and after doing more research, she trekked out to Alberta and settled in Calgary, still with the bare minimum of what she had left behind.

Back home she worked in communications with the United Nations. She could only hope to find a job in her chosen profession. For many of her Ukrainian friends, the challenge of learning English and having to settle for whatever job they could find has taken a toll on their self-esteem, and they have returned to either Ukraine or another European country.

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Laba says she was attracted by Alberta’s big Ukrainian community and Calgary having a similar busy vibe like Kyiv. A Calgary family took her in, and she was able to find her first job.

She has made Cowtown her home, finding a job that fits her qualifications and passions, but still, her love for Ukraine and friends and family took her back to Kyiv for a three-week visit recently.

Having been away from the war for over a year, going back and hearing the sirens warning of a possible missile strike, brought home the harsh reality of war to the returning Ukrainian.

“Sirens are every single night. So, if you don’t sleep at night, the next day you will feel bad. And then imagine having to live for the past year with that. So, people go to bed. People don’t go to the shelters anymore – some go, but some of them don’t. But you can’t go to the shelter every night if you need to work the next day. So, people make the hard choice to stay home and sleep,” says Laba.

She adds the sirens are loud, but people have trained themselves to sleep through the noise even with the risk that their building could suffer a direct hit.

She says prices have skyrocketed in Ukraine. Everyday problems and challenges like medical conditions remain, but add to that the trauma of war and the constant sound of sirens going off warning of a missile strike. Many buildings are still standing as the missiles are taken out by the city’s defenses.

Laba says people keep hoping for the war to end. They acknowledge the challenges of leaving to go to a new country, but for her mental health, she could not stay. However, she says if everyone leaves who will rebuild Ukraine?

From her visit, she understands that there is no way back to the Ukraine that she knew. So, she is making new friends and a new life in Canada.

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“You basically need to work on two fronts – what’s happening inside of you; what’s happening with your country and also try to build your life here. You have to make a new circle of people around you through networking. But still, it’s just the beginning. It’s not the end, but the beginning of my journey,” says Laba.

She has applied for permanent residency and embraces the future hope of being a Canadian citizen. Laba sees the immigrant story for her as being one of resilience in battling homesickness, and trauma because of the war, but with the hope of a new home and life.

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