Oleksandr Bagaiev cradled his newborn son in a Toronto hospital. It wasn't supposed to happen this way; his first child born in a strange land, without family, friends or even a crib. Oleksandr and his wife, Nataliia Kniazieva, who are from Ukraine, had only been in Canada for 49 days when little baby Leonid arrived.
“We weren't prepared at all,” says Oleksandr, who shares that Leonid (Leo for short) was born a full month early and 7,500 km from the family’s home in Ukraine. “We didn’t have a bed or a stroller. We had nothing.”
Left 'a good life' in Ukraine
The young couple had fled what they say was an idyllic life in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital city. “We had good jobs, a good life and good opportunities,” says Oleksandr, who had been a successful construction engineer. “We liked to travel but we had never thought about leaving our country behind.”
That was until Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in late February. The couple stayed as long as they could, hoping the war would not reach their doorstep. But with each day the violence hit closer to home. “It was hard because some of our friends died,” says Oleksandr.
It was only in April, after the Russians were driven from the besieged neighbouring cities of Bucha and Irpin, that the horrifying devastation and human tragedy left in those cities was revealed. What they saw terrified the couple. "It was then that we knew we had to leave," says Oleksandr.
A chance for a peaceful life
The Ukrainian government forbade young men from leaving the country and gave them strict orders to stay and fight. But Oleksandr is excluded from military service because he has health problems. Authorities allowed him to cross the border into Poland with his pregnant wife. Their journey, with just four suitcases and Nataliia's rapidly growing belly, took them from Poland onward to the country of Georgia.
The expectant parents wanted to welcome their child into a world of safety. So when Red Cross volunteers told them about Canada and WoodGreen Community Services, Oleksandr knew it was their chance at a peaceful life. Truthfully though, he says the only things he knew about Canada were from books and TV.
Oleksandr quickly set about getting Canadian Visas for himself and Nataliia, an import/export manager, and immediately reached out to WoodGreen before even leaving Europe. "Everyone told me it was a good organization with good people. They were right."
WoodGreen helping from Day 2 in Canada
They arrived in Toronto in July of this year. By the second day, WoodGreen newcomer services was helping them navigate the processes of obtaining a SIN, bank account and OHIP cards.
"They have helped with so much," he says. "And we needed that OHIP card sooner than we thought." Little Leo arrived a month early, healthy and perhaps just as importantly, safe in his parent's arms.
While Leo’s early arrival was a surprise, WoodGreen settlement officer Liza Magbanua Abdon had prepared the couple for the birth. She found them an OBGYN who spoke Ukrainian. She explained how things would work for the delivery. She even sent them pictures of the things they’d need to bring with them to the hospital. She connected them with a program that provides families in need with the first key baby supplies and also runs programs for new mothers until their children are three years old. Liza helped explain what documents they’d need to obtain after Leo’s birth and how to get benefits for him.
Hopes to use engineering experience from Ukraine
Oleksandr was able to find work just two weeks after arriving in Canada. He is working as a construction site superintendent and hopes to soon have his engineering degree recognized in Canada. Until then, he’s glad to be working to help provide for his growing family.
“I was expecting to have to work with my hands but I get to work with my mind, which is great.”
‘Many, many, many kind people here’
The family secured an apartment within three weeks of arriving in Canada, and just a few weeks before the baby arrived. WoodGreen is helping with a rent subsidy program for six months as part of its Ukrainian Stabilization Program. WoodGreen has also helped the couple find furniture for their new home, including a bed for the baby. They also provided the young family with welcome kits and connected them with WoodGreen's mental health, financial planning and empowerment services as well as employment services. If and when Nataliia begins to look for work, WoodGreen can help her access language classes as well as child care services.
Oleksandr and Nataliia say they have been welcomed to Canada with open arms. “Many, many, many kind people here and everyone wants to help us,” says Oleksandr. “Canada has a very diverse culture and so many different cultures all together.”
Oleksandr says when the war ends, it will be people like him who will need to go back to Ukraine. He is a construction engineer and he says he will be ready to rebuild his country and his life, when it is finally safe to do so.