WARSAW — It’s a bitterly cold morning in Poland’s capital, at the heart of the city’s diplomatic row. Outside the concrete-and-glass edifice of the Canadian embassy, about four dozen people are waiting, mostly women with children in tow.

WARSAW — It’s a bitterly cold morning in Poland’s capital, at the heart of the city’s diplomatic row. Outside the concrete-and-glass edifice of the Canadian embassy, about four dozen people are waiting, mostly women with children in tow.

They huddle together under two black tents, hastily erected by security guards for protection from the swirling, wet snow.

As they wait, some greet each other in Ukrainian, others in Russian. New people arrive and ask questions about what to do and where to go.

They’re all in this together in a way, all of them displaced by war and, now, trying to navigate the steps to come to Canada; even after the federal government simplified the process for Ukrainian refugees, it can be slow.

<p>MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Ukrainian refugees line up outside of the Canadian Embassy in Warsaw. Most are waiting to get their biometrics done, which has been a sticking point in getting visas processed for many. </p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Ukrainian refugees line up outside of the Canadian Embassy in Warsaw. Most are waiting to get their biometrics done, which has been a sticking point in getting visas processed for many.

Near the back of the line, a woman named Kateryna waits, holding a paper that explains, in English, why Canadian officials want her photograph and fingerprints.

Like most other people in line, she has an appointment to give that biometric data to the embassy; after that, she hopes, she will get her approval to travel to Canada in the coming days.

Kateryna does not want to go to Canada, not really.

What she wants is to go back home to Mykolaiv, a shipbuilding city on Ukraine’s southern steppes, nestled against a river that rushes into the Black Sea. But fighting came quickly to Mykolaiv, just days after Russian troops entered the country, and if Kateryna cannot go home, then she must find a place to be safe.

<p>MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Ukrainian refugees outside the Canadian Embassy in Warsaw.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Ukrainian refugees outside the Canadian Embassy in Warsaw.

So she left Mykolaiv, travelling first to Vinnytsia, about 260 kilometres west of Kyiv, and from there she followed the great mass of people making their way west, into Poland, where more than 2.3 million have fled since the war began Feb. 24. And she has an uncle in Oakville, Ont., so she decided to secure the opportunity to go to Canada, even as she longed to go home.

She does still have a home, she notes: her apartment is still intact. But people she knew have died under the bombs.

"If I will have an opportunity to stay in Ukraine, I will stay in Ukraine," says Kateryna, who asked us not to use her full name.

"But unfortunately now I can’t stay there, because of the attacks… I will manage. I was lucky to leave first days of the war, so I think I’m lucky."

These sentiments could be echoed by hundreds of thousands of refugees here in Poland, on the doorstep of the war.

Now, their journeys are becoming intertwined with Canada’s own. This is a familiar bond: Canada has the world’s second-largest Ukrainian diaspora, second only to Russia. Last week, a journalist who had recently returned from Ukraine told me that almost everyone he met there knew someone in Canada: an aunt, a cousin, a friend.

In Manitoba, those connections are especially tight. About one in six Manitobans identifies as Ukrainian-Canadian, making it host to Canada’s largest per capita Ukrainian community. It’s a place where the language is still spoken, where musicians and dancers still refine their traditions, where people still gather at the province’s many Ukrainian churches to pray.

"If I will have an opportunity to stay in Ukraine, I will stay in Ukraine... But unfortunately now I can’t stay there, because of the attacks… I will manage. I was lucky to leave first days of the war, so I think I’m lucky." –Kateryna

These bonds of culture and language, family and faith have been affirmed and renewed across generations. So what happens in Ukraine makes broad ripples across Manitoba; and it is because of this depth of connection that the Free Press decided to come to Poland so we can witness the sprawling humanitarian efforts here through our own eyes.

That journey begins on a weekday afternoon in the heart of old Warsaw, a puzzle of cobblestone streets lined by five-storey buildings. In planters that line the sidewalks, city workers have placed blue and yellow flowers, to match the Ukrainian flag; on lampposts, that same flag flutters alongside red-and-yellow banners of Warsaw, a statement of solidarity.

"Poland takes care of us very well, and this is quite touching," Tetiana Maksymtsiv says, as she strolls past the courtyard of Poland’s presidential palace, bounded by a low fence and empty save for a few watchful guards. "I feel that I’m at home."

<p>MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Ukrainian refugee Tetiana Maksymtsiv first learned about Winnipeg through a friend who had moved to the city about six years ago. In a few days, she will be flying to Winnipeg to settle in Canada.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Ukrainian refugee Tetiana Maksymtsiv first learned about Winnipeg through a friend who had moved to the city about six years ago. In a few days, she will be flying to Winnipeg to settle in Canada.

This city reminds her a lot of Ivano-Frankivsk, her hometown in western Ukraine. It’s a picturesque place of about 250,000 people tucked near the flank of the Carpathia mountains; Ivano-Frankivsk, she points out, was built by Polish nobility in the 17th century, so the textures and muted colours of Warsaw’s architecture look a lot like her own urban home.

"Not similar to Winnipeg," she says, with a laugh.

Maksymtsiv, 39, knows Winnipeg. She first learned about it through a friend who had moved to the city about six years ago. For years Maksymtsiv herself had been dreaming about moving to Canada, though she’d initially had another destination in mind. But her friend intervened: "why Saskatchewan?" he asked, and urged her to consider Manitoba instead.

That coaxing worked. In November 2021, Maksymtsiv made her first trip to the province, as part of a program offered by the Ukrainian Canadian Congress. She spent nine days in Winnipeg, where she toured the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and visited Ukrainian cultural centre Oseredok, which left her with a sense of the local diaspora’s pride.

"They can be Ukrainians in Canada, in Manitoba," she says. "They have their own culture safe."

"They can be Ukrainians in Canada, in Manitoba... They have their own culture safe." –Tetiana Maksymtsiv

Although she was worried she might struggle to understand and be understood in English, which she’d been studying for a few years, she was delighted to find that it was easy for her to navigate life in this new language. Everything seemed to be a perfect fit, she thought; she began pulling together the paperwork to immigrate to Manitoba over the winter.

"It was amazing," she says. "I was excited, and I was sure that this is the right time and the right place to be, for living."

Then came the war, and suddenly, that plan had to change.

Like many in Ukraine, Maksymtsiv didn’t really believe the war would happen the way that it did. Of course, she knew that tensions were rising, and that Russia was amassing troops on the border: "I believed that it would be some provocation on the east of Ukraine," she says. "Something not so strong. But we were mistaken. Everyone was mistaken."

Early in the morning on Feb. 24, she got a message from her father, who lived near where the first missile struck an air base in Ivano-Frankivsk. The war had started, he said. He was in tears.

<p>MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Ukrainian refugee Tetiana Maksymtsiv shows the jewelry she brought with her when fleeing, which includes pieces given to her by her husband and her mom, in Warsaw.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Ukrainian refugee Tetiana Maksymtsiv shows the jewelry she brought with her when fleeing, which includes pieces given to her by her husband and her mom, in Warsaw.

The next days are a blur. One of the first things Maksymtsiv did was notify Canadian immigration officials that she would have trouble completing her documents; then, with her husband’s help, she began to hastily pack a few bags with clothing and paperwork and one of her most prized possessions: a book about Canadian accounting practices, for her career.

All the while, she braced against the threat of more bombings.

"I cannot explain how I was feeling, listening all the time to the (air-raid) sirens," she says. "This is very, very scary. You cannot eat, you cannot live, you cannot move, because you are so afraid. It is a terrible thing."

On Feb. 26, Maksymtsiv began the journey out of Ukraine, along with her sister and her nephew. Her husband Yaroslav, a Soviet-era Navy veteran, stayed behind. Men aged 18 to 60 are banned from leaving the country under a martial-law edict; but he also wanted to stay, Maksymtsiv explains, to help care for his ailing and elderly parents.

"I cannot explain how I was feeling, listening all the time to the (air raid) sirens... This is very, very scary. You cannot eat, you cannot live, you cannot move, because you are so afraid. It is a terrible thing." –Tetiana Maksymtsiv

The journey out of Ukraine was draining. Vehicles piled up at the borders as millions sought to flee; for nearly 24 hours, she says, they had no food and no water. They struck out for the border on foot, walking for hours, carrying their things without sleep. Finally, they made it across, where a network of volunteers was coalescing to help them.

For the first week in Poland, Maksymtsiv struggled to focus. She had brought the files she needed to continue working as an accountant, but she could not pull herself away from the news of the war. She even chose to keep receiving air-raid alerts on her phone: she worried about what was happening to her loved ones, but not knowing when to worry was worse.

"Sometimes, it can be four times per day or five times per day," she says, chatting over a cup of cappuccino at a cosy Italian cafe. "Even at night. I just sit and wait and wonder, ‘what happened?’ Then I call my father, my husband and my friends: ‘is everything OK?’"

<p>MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>“I am excited, because it’s Winnipeg, it’s Canada, it’s my dream,” says Ukrainian refugee Tetiana Maksymtsiv.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

“I am excited, because it’s Winnipeg, it’s Canada, it’s my dream,” says Ukrainian refugee Tetiana Maksymtsiv.

What helped, she said, was keeping her plan moving forward. She made contact again with Canadian immigration officials, and got everything she needed together. She booked a temporary rental apartment in the Grant Park area, and friends offered to help her find a more permanent home. On Wednesday, she will fly to Winnipeg to start her life anew.

"I am excited, because it’s Winnipeg, it’s Canada, it’s my dream," she says, and searches for a word she cannot quite find. "But I have missing feelings. Some feeling that I cannot understand, I cannot explain how actually I am feeling. Probably some sadness. I’m not sure what will happen with my family, with my husband. Something like this."

The English word she’s searching for — is it ‘apprehension?’

"Yes," she says, with a quiet nod. "Exactly. I’m happy, but I’m not happy… I’m so much scared of everything, of my future, (for) my husband."

That fear, that apprehension, will be with her for a very long time. Even now, more than a month since she left Ukraine, she still jumps at certain noises, like the slam of trash-bin lids beneath the window of the apartment a friend offered for her to stay.

"It’s unbelievable to me," she says. "(It feels like) yesterday I was in Ivano-Frankivsk and I saw the huge smoke from the missiles, the sirens and a lot of people crying, screaming. People, children, in my city, at the border. It was like horror."

"(It feels like) yesterday I was in Ivano–Frankivsk and I saw the huge smoke from the missiles, the sirens and a lot of people crying, screaming. People, children, in my city, at the border. It was like horror." – Tetiana Maksymtsiv

But something keeps her going, she nods, and she gazes out the window of the coffee shop, down to the vibrant pedestrian life milling about the streets. It’s life, she says, and a sense that, even if this was not how she imagined her path to Canada would go, she is still moving forward. She’s still making her life her own; the war has not taken that from her.

"I have no choice," she says. "I cannot stop this, so I just need to continue living. I have a plan to settle down in Winnipeg, probably I can arrange something, I can find something to help my family, my sister or my husband, and I’ll just pray that Ivano-Frankivsk is safe.

"We cannot be sure of anything, 100 per cent. But life is going on. So we should continue living, planning."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Mikaela MacKenzie

Mikaela MacKenzie
Photojournalist

Mikaela MacKenzie loves meeting people, experiencing new things, and learning something every day. That's what drove her to pursue a career as a visual journalist — photographers get a hands-on, boots-on-the-ground look at the world.

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.