Ukrainian travel agents rebuild lives in Victoria

Max and Viktoriia Shkurupii, both 36, are now working in Victoria as travel agents, a business they had to abandon in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital city, when the Russians invaded the country last February

Ukrainian refugees Max and Viktoriia Shkurupii no longer have to worry about missiles flying overhead and the ground shaking beneath their feet.

They don’t have to send their children to school each morning with two days’ worth of food and water, changes of clothes and their passports stuffed into their backpacks in case bombs fall and they’re rushed to shelters in the subway system — or worse.

The terrible, unsettling feeling of the Russian war on their doorstep is far away now as the Shkurupii family starts a new life in Canada.

Ten-year-old Daniil is loving classes and new friends at Central Middle School and Anhelina, 14, is fitting right in at Oak Bay High. The family, which is fluent in English, has a comfortable apartment just a short walk to both schools.

You can see the difference the last 10 months has made in their children’s smiles, say their parents.

“They come home super happy from school,” says Viktoriia. “It’s always great to see them be relaxed and smiling. There was a time in the first weeks of the war when my kids stopped smiling. That was a sad thing for us.

“We are thankful every day,” adds Viktoriia. “The children can go to sleep in pajamas, not their clothes, and don’t have to have suitcases packed by beds. The explosions … the children were waking up screaming.”

Max and Viktoriia, both 36, are now working as travel agents, a business they had to abandon in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital city, when the ­Russians invaded the country in ­February.

Cathy Scott, owner of Departures Travel in Oak Bay and Sidney, says she was contacted by the couple several months ago as they began their journey out of the Ukraine.

She wasn’t looking for additional agents for her business, but the family’s story touched her heart.

“I have three kids of my own and one of them is 36 — the same age as these two,” says Scott. “My kids grew up in a peaceful country, they had opportunities, so I couldn’t imagine what Max and Viktoriia were going through.

“And then I met them and I thought: ‘Wow, they’re very articulate, they know a lot about the business’ and the wheels just started turning,” says Scott. “The agency that they both came from is very similar to mine.

“I know that they needed some stability and they needed to know what was happening. One thing I do know in life is that sometimes you have to make quick decisions and things usually do work out. So I thought, let’s just do this.”

One week into it, Scott has no regrets. “They know what they’re doing and they’re very skilled. Victoria will support them like the [region] has supported me so well and they will be successful here.”

The Shkurupii family is part of a flood of 117,000 Ukrainian refugees who have arrived in Canada — the federal government received more than 700,000 requests for temporary visas from Ukraine between March and November.

As of Dec. 3, 696 Ukrainian refugees have arrived on Vancouver Island, and more are coming every day, said Karmen McNamara of Help Ukraine Vancouver Island, the main agency assigned to helping refugees arrive and settle.

The Shkurupiis say they were living normal lives in Ukraine, running a travel agency and raising their children — Max, who stands 6-foot-5, was playing some semi-pro basketball — when the Russians started massing troops on the Belarus border, and sent missiles into the suburbs north of Kyiv on Feb. 24.

“I jumped out of bed and said the war has started,” saysViktoriia.

“Everything was like a nightmare,” says Max.

They left Kyiv for Max’s father’s place in the country and stayed for a week, but planes were constantly flying overhead. “We were sleeping all dressed up and ready to run at any time,” says Viktoriia. “Sometimes I could feel the bed shaking.”

Max adds: “It’s not what we wanted for our kids, to live in a nightmare. This is when the Russians took the suburbs, only seven to 10 kilometres to Kyiv. It was time the children and Viktoriia had to leave”

The family stayed a week at Max’s father’s place and fled to the Polish border on March 5. It took them three days to make what’s normally a three-hour drive. Along the way, they stayed at the homes of strangers.

Max left the rest of the family at the border and they caught a ride with a friend to Krakow and then travelled to Berlin, where Viktoriia’s mother was living.

“I felt my life was destroyed … alone in Europe with two kids,” she says.

With Europe already flooded with refugees, Viktoriia wrote a friend on the Azores Islands in Portugal, where the government housed them, schooled the children and brought food and supplies.

Max returned to his father’s farm for a few days and then drove back to Kyiv. Max and his best friend started a fundraising project on social media to collect money and buy food and supplies and deliver them to hard-hit areas around the capital.

They bought non-perishable items like flour and sugar and acquired medications and pharmacy items to deliver to the elderly who were unable to get out because of the bombing damage. There was no public transportation.

“Villages to the north had no electricity and damaged houses, so we decided we can take our car and take groceries and water, oil and other things. We were able to raise 10,000 euros and doing person-to-person help, going to supermarkets, arranging in bags and going into the roads,” says Max.

“We didn’t have any plan. We drove wherever we could. We were buying dog food. Lots of people left their dogs, so there was a crisis with animals. We felt like it was a good thing to do and we weren’t the only ones.”

Max continued the deliveries for two and half months. Then he read about the temporary visas and other supports from the Canadian government, an opportunity for an open work permit for three years.

“Max called me and said: ‘What about Canada?’ ” said Viktoriia. “I said I’m open to anything.”

Because he was in the travel business, Max was familiar with travel paperwork and visas. But the challenge was the requirement to get biometrics, or fingerprints, to process visas.

At the time, there were no functioning embassies, so Max obtained a permit and passport approval to travel to Madrid via Warsaw and Berlin. He met Viktoriia and the children at the Canadian embassy in Madrid after three months apart.

He travelled with four suitcases and the family dog, Bruno.

They spent another five months waiting for the visas to be processed.

So why Victoria?

“I googled warmest place in Canada, and Victoria came up,” Viktoriia says, adding the ocean allows her to meditate and relax.

On Nov. 2, they arrived in Victoria, where Help Ukraine Vancouver Island helped them settle in.

“We’ve had such great support from the Ukrainian community here,” Max says.

While the Shkurupii family look forward to their new life in Canada, they are worried about the friends and family they’ve left behind.

Viktoriia left her musician brother in Ukraine, while Max’s father, 60, remains at his home in a rural area. “He has chickens, potatoes, carrots. He generates his own electricity and has a well. He’s in the middle of nowhere. He lives a farmer’s life, so I hope he stays safe, and I hope to see him soon.”

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