Peter Premachuk has a crowded house these days. The Flin Flon-born man has taken on a new role after war broke out in his family’s homeland of Ukraine - sanctuary.
In the past several weeks, Premachuk has helped bring seven long-lost family members out of danger in Ukraine to safety in Canada, moving them away from danger into his own house.
About a full century ago, Premachuk’s grandfather left his ancestral home and got on a boat across the Atlantic, eventually ending up in The Pas. Premachuk would grow up in Flin Flon, where his father was a doctor, before growing up and moving out west. He now lives in Olds, Alta., where he owns the local H&R Block.
After the Russian military invaded Ukraine, Premachuk was struck by a Facebook post made by a cousin of his, who said they had contacted remaining relatives of his still living in Ukraine. They were safe, they said, but Premachuk reached out - party to meet his own distant relatives and partly to try and help.
That was the way Premachuk met Sonia Prykhodko, a distant cousin of his who was still living at his family’s property, located northeast of Lviv near the country’s Polish border.
“When she got a hold of me on Messenger, it started a stream of messages for the first week,” said Premachuk.
“We sorted out the family lines… once we sorted all that out, we had a video call the first week and it just took off from there.”
Premachuk was struck by the severity of the family’s situation, which sometimes reared its head through their efforts to stay in contact.
“Sometimes when her daughter didn't get to bed early, I couldn't have a video call because they were on ‘lights out’ - no lights on past nine o'clock at that time of the year. They could only do voice and she had to turn her phone screen off, because they were afraid the Russians would bomb wherever there were lights or whatever, even in a small village,” he said.
“Those are the realities that it's hard to imagine.”
With cities near the family home being attacked, Premachuk knew his family would need to escape and come to safety in Canada.
“Obviously the war was going on and I was saying, ‘Come on, come to Canada,’” said Premachuk.
First, Prykhodko and her family - husband Igor, their daughter Kristina, her sister Iryna and her husband and two sons - got out of harm’s way. The group made their way west, reaching Poland and the capital of Warsaw in mid-April.
“You just want them to get through to the border. They made it fine and there really weren’t any issues, but there was no internet so we didn’t hear from anyone until they got near a city - we heard from them once they got to them once they made it to the border,” Premachuk said.
“When they hit Warsaw, there was a great relief.”
Once the families were out of Ukraine came the logistics of getting them to Canada. The federal government has expedited travel for people seeking refuge from Ukraine, but that doesn’t mean the situation was always smooth.
“At that point, I launched the website Immigration Canada and we started applying on the day after. All during that time, we were sort of rediscovering family,” Premachuk said.
Once all the paperwork was cleared, the Ukrainians left Poland in late April and arrived in Alberta earlier this month.
Since then, Premachuk and his seven relatives have been living under one roof together in Alberta. Members of both Olds and Flin Flon have helped out to cover some expenses - Premachuk’s family started a fundraising campaign to cover some of the costs of immigration, refugee claims and overall costs for the new Canadians.
That funding will get an extra boost from Premachuk’s childhood hometown this weekend, as a show at Johnny’s Social Club will raise money for people and groups serving Ukrainian refugees - including Premachuk. Donations can be made at the show, which opens its doors at 7:30 p.m. May 28.
“We’ve been very fortunate with our town - people have been very welcoming, as Canadians are,” he said.
The families will soon move into a rental house of their own in Alberta, starting later this week. Later this summer, Premachuk plans to bring them to the north to show his family where he came from.
Premachuk said there are still reminders of the situation being faced back in Ukraine - including messages from relatives currently in the midst of the fighting.
“It's a little surreal. Even last night, we were talking to her brother - he’s in Lviv and he's in the National Guard and he's on guard duty. he's on a break. He has a video call and you're looking at a soldier in complete soldier’s garb and rifle and you're just having a chat - ‘How's it going? Is everything okay?’” he said.
“It kind of brings the war closer. Even though we're quite far away, it makes it very real for me.”