Ukrainian couple used Kyiv parking garage as a bomb shelter before fleeing to Canada

For a second night, Oleksandra Samorodova and Irene Ilchanka sat inside their small car parked in a Kyiv underground parking lot – a site that had become a makeshift bomb shelter since the invasion by Russia – and set out one important goal once they escaped.

“This second night was a sleepless night and we were tired and we were talking and I said, OK, let’s get married when we get out of here,” Ilchanka said.

Those marriage plans are currently in the works, as the couple, along with Samorodova’s seven-year-old son Noah, their two cats and a dog settle into a new life in Toronto, more than 7,000 kilometers away from the deadly violence in Ukraine.

With the help of friends in the city, they were able to secure an apartment in a Beaches-area home where they can stay for free until September. Although they came to Canada with almost nothing, local donations have supplied them with enough food and clothing, as well as toys for Noah, who has enrolled in a school down the street.

Noah, 7, who fled Ukraine with his mother and her partner is pictured in his bedroom in a donated Toronto apartment on April 1. (Evan Mitsui / CBC)

Samorodova and Ilchanka are now trying to help others in Ukraine navigate their way to safety. Both animal lovers, they are also attempting to figure out how to find Canadian homes for the pets that have been abandoned in Ukraine by fleeing residents.

One bag and the clothes on their backs

On Feb. 24, the couple was forced to flee their own apartment in downtown Kyiv, waking up around 5:30 am to the sound of explosions.

“We don’t know what to do because we can’t believe that this is really happening,” Ilchanka said. “And then we realized … that it began, the war has begun.”

The couple lived on the 25th floor of their apartment building and were concerned for their safety. They gave themselves 35 minutes to quickly pack up one bag, using half of it for pet food and documents, and with only the clothes on their backs left the apartment.

They picked up Noah, who was with his father at the time, and headed to an underground parking lot downtown, where many other city residents had relocated to shelter from the bombing.

The parking garage had electricity and a washroom and Samorodova, Ilchanka, Noah and the pets were forced to sleep inside their Mini car. But the explosions they heard at night made them realize they weren’t safe and that they needed to leave the area.

Hundreds crowd into the train station in Kyiv to evacuate the city. (Submitted by Oleksandra Samorodova and Irene Ilchanka)

When they emerged from the lot, they couldn’t believe how much the city had changed in just two days.

“Not because of bombing, but because of the whole atmosphere,” Ilchanka said.

“It was downtown and it was empty,” Samorodova added.

They drove about a half hour away, stayed with friends for a few days, but felt that they needed to head west, and decided to take the evacuation train.

The scene at the station located in central Kyiv was “catastrophic,” Ilchanka said. “There were burned out cars, and all these people with animals and their backpacks going to the train station.

“I’ve never seen the train station so crowded. It was people everywhere and everybody trying to get to any direction. “

The train itself was overcrowded, with no food or water available. They also had to turn off the lights so the train wouldn’t be seen from the sky, Ilchanka said.

Kyiv passengers crowded into train. (Submitted by Oleksandra Samorodova and Irene Ilchanka)

Fleeing to Canada

The trip took them 18 hours and arrived in Rakhiv, in western Ukraine. From there, they crossed the border into Romania, and decided that Canada would be their final destination. Noah was born there; Samorodova had lived in Toronto before and had received her Canadian citizenship. Meanwhile, Ilchanka had a tourist visa allowing her to stay for six months.

“It was a rational decision,” Ilchanka said.

Samorodova was a radiologist back in Ukraine but also worked in a medical IT company, a job she’s able to continue in Toronto. Ilchanka worked for an advertising firm but is currently looking for work, and has applied for a work permit.

They want to eventually get their own apartment, but for now are grateful for the support they have received.

“We were shocked. We were surprised. We didn’t even know how many kind people there are in this world,” Samorodova said.

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