'Gives me purpose': Ukrainian lawyer living in Edmonton helps refugees get settled

“I love this work. The people come here with nothing, and we help get them set up,” said Yankova. “We are like one big Ukrainian family. Working here gives me a sense of home … gives me purpose, and I get so much joy out of it”

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Two years ago, Svetlana Yankova was working as a lawyer in Ukraine, living a great life with her husband and son, with a new daughter on the way.

Then the missiles started crashing down.

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It was so scary. We had to do whatever we could to survive,” said Yankova, who escaped the devastating war in Ukraine and came to Edmonton last year.

Yankova recalls hearing the bombs and missiles go off outside the streets of her city, almost on a daily basis. She remembers one morning, a missile hit the building near hers, and some of her friends in the building were killed.

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To try and stay safe, her family and another family lived in the basement of their building. Basements in Ukraine aren’t like they are here in Canada. They are cold, dingy and wet. No power and pure darkness.

“It was so cold, we’d bring some chairs and got some wooden pallets, so we could make a bed for our kids. We’d be wearing as much clothes as we could to stay warm,” said Yankova.

“In the mornings, usually around 7 a.m., it was a bit safer to go outside, so some of us would go out then and go back to our house and cook up some food, and make some tea, and then we’d make our way back. They’d start bombing and shooting missiles in the evenings and it would go off all night long, usually until four in the morning.”

Yankova and her family lived under the chaos and terror of the war for as long as they could, but she knew deep down they had to leave. It really came to the forefront when she was six months pregnant, and one day, she couldn’t feel her baby moving.

“Thankfully everything was OK with her, but we knew we needed to go, because I feared we may lose the baby.”

The family first fled to Poland, but couldn’t stay because Poland couldn’t accept any more refugees at that time. Then they went to Germany — same result. Yankova, her husband, son and her mother were forced to live out of their car for a week.

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They knew Canada was an option, and after doing some research they came in contact with a family from Mexico, who live in Edmonton, and they offered to house them until they could get on their feet.

‘Working here gives me a sense of home’

After making the 8,000-kilometre journey to Edmonton, and staying with the family for a couple weeks, they decided they wanted to settle into a place of their own.

That’s when Yankova came across the Free Store for Ukrainian Newcomers, located in Downtown Edmonton at 10568 108 St NW. The local non-profit started as an emergency response to those fleeing the war in Ukraine and has grown to so much more.

When she first entered the store, she was scared, but realized they were going to help her family rebuild their lives, giving them the necessities they need to get back on their feet.

“We got some clothes, and some things that we had to leave back home. We got to meet people who could speak our language … we felt safe,” said Yankova, who, after receiving help, immediately began volunteering at the store.

Now, Yankova is one of two full-time staff who help manage volunteers, track donations and help the families in need.

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“I love this work. The people come here with nothing, and we help get them set up,” said Yankova. “We are like one big Ukrainian family. Working here gives me a sense of home … gives me purpose, and I get so much joy out of it.”

Ukraine Edmonton
Svetlana Yankova interacts with a family at the Free Store for Ukrainian Newcomers, located in downtown Edmonton at 10568-108 St NW. Photo by Jason Hills/Postmedia /edm

The store only planned to be open for a only few weeks, but it’s become so much more than just a passion project for co-founders Jorgia Moore and her mother Janice Krissa — it’s become a safe haven for Ukraine refugees who come to Edmonton after fleeing the war.

We knew we were created something special. It wasn’t just stuff. It was about love and friendship. A lot of the people say the most important thing they got was friendship,” said Krissa.

The store boasts more than 100 dedicated volunteers who have come to Edmonton from Ukraine. They initially received help from the facility, and now they’re giving back, helping others. Krissa and Moore have also opened up a kitchen facility that coincides with the store, cooking meals for Ukrainian families in need.

“All the volunteers have gone through this. They came here to shop, and then they stayed,” said Krissa. “It’s almost become a ritual, and this is one place where they can feel like they’re at home.”

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A visit from Santa

On Tuesday, roughly 300 children got to experience a special Christmas surprise and receive a present from Santa, as more than 500 brand new toys were donated this year to the store. This is the second year in a row the store held a similar event. Last year, children got a visit from St. Nicholas.

Every person who walks through this door has such a unique story and such a journey of getting here. Some have experienced trauma that you just can’t comprehend,” said Moore.

Ukraine Edmonton
A family visits with Santa Claus during a visit to the Free Store for Ukrainian Newcomers, 10568-108 St., in Edmonton Tuesday Dec. 12, 2023. Photo by David Bloom /Postmedia

“Being able to help out any way we can, and being able to turn such evil into a beacon of hope, a community of hope is the ultimate goal, and this event totally encompasses it. The children get to see this fairy-tale come to life and feel welcomed in this Canadian culture.”

At some point, the war will end. Some families may go back to Ukraine. Others may stay here in Edmonton, and Krissa and Moore want this facility to still be available to those who still might need it.

“We have visions of turning this into a community centre once the influx of Ukrainian immigrants stop coming,” said Krissa.

“We would love this to be a place they can come to where they can receive community support, while they continue to build their lives.”

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