How Winnipeg’s Jewish community welcomed this Ukrainian refugee after her escape from the Russian invasion

Winnipeg family welcomes Ukrainian refugee
Yelena Agapov (left) of Winnipeg greets her exhausted mother-in-law Valentyna Agapova at the Winnipeg airport March 9, 2022 after the Ukrainian refugee's escape from the Russian invasion. A grandson, 13, is also there to greet her. (Denis Agapov photo).

After surviving Russian bombs and a 1,000-kilometre journey to safety, a widowed Ukrainian refugee with ties to the Jewish community has arrived safely in Winnipeg.

Valentyna Agapova reached Canada on March 8, where her worried family lives. They had been frantically begging her to leave Ukraine once the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24.

“We started to ask her to leave on the first day, but she said, ‘No, I’m not leaving, I’ll be here. Everything is fine’,” said her daughter-in-law Yelena Agapov, in an interview with The CJN Daily podcast on March 20.

Her mother-in-law lived in the Zaporizhzhya region, where she worked as a hairdresser.

That area in southeastern Ukraine is the site of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. It came under attack early in the war. While some of the local residents formed a human blockade to try to stop the Russian advance, Agapova spent four days living in a bomb shelter.

“It was super patriotic. They were fighting for their children and their grandchildren’s lives and they went out at their own risk without any thought of the repercussions that they might suffer,” Agapova said, through a translator.

But when the plant was bombed, and one of the buildings caught fire, that clinched it.

“Then she was scared, and the next morning, she left for the train station at 7 a.m.,” said her daughter-in-law.

Pushed and beaten at the train station

Valentyna left behind her apartment, and her job as a hairstylist at a local salon. A twin brother and older sister and their extended families all remain in Ukraine.

On March 5, taking only what she could carry in one backpack, Valentyna made her way to the train station, hoping to grab a free seat on a train going to safety in the western part of the country.

“There were thousands of people and she sent me some pictures of the line to get to the train,” Yelena said, picking up the story. Her mother-in-law missed the first two trains. She was out there for six hours.

“There were thousands of people on the platform trying to get on the train,” Valentyna recalled, explaining that everybody was pushing and shoving.

However, they were only allowing women with children to board, so wherever there was an individual, like her, they were pushed away.

“I was beaten. They pulled my hair to pull me back so that I wouldn’t get on the train,” Agapova recalled.

It was not the Ukrainian railway officers who were manhandling her. These were civilians: the husbands of the women with children.

“I still can’t believe that I made it through to get on,” she said.

Once on board, the crowding on the trains was unbelievable. She estimates there were two hundred and fifty passengers in a wagon built to seat fifty people. And there was no food or snacks to be had. The railway provided only hot water.

However, because she had no container of her own to drink from, Valentyna waited until another refugee had finished their drink, and borrowed the dirty cup, despite COVID.

“I didn’t even think about that. There was so much going on. I didn’t even think about the pandemic,” she acknowledged.

Ukrainian refugee
Valentyna Agapova, 67, slept for a few hours on the floor of this Ukrainian warehouse near the Polish border on March 7, 2022 before walking the rest of the way on foot through the border crossing to safety. (Submitted photo)

The train journey to Lviv took about 30 hours, a trip which usually takes 24. She believes the train had to stop often and take detours to avoid Russian forces.

When they arrived in Lviv, volunteers gave them one sausage and tea. They boarded free buses that brought them further west, close to the border with Poland. It was already evening when the buses arrived. They were told they needed to wait until morning, when another bus would come and take them the rest of the way.

Valentyna said she and about 100 other refugees were provided with blankets, and brought to a warehouse, where they were told they could sleep on the floor. But around midnight, they heard bombing very near, and some of the travellers decided not to wait.

“Some people started walking at midnight, and I also left at 3 o’clock in the morning, by foot.”

It was cold.

Someone had set up barrels along the way, packed with burning firewood, to light the path and to provide a bit of warmth. Valentyna carried only her backpack, but she saw cars headed west carrying people and their suitcases.

Kindness of volunteers

Once she arrived at the Rava Ruska border crossing between Ukraine and Poland, she was processed, and was able to travel into Poland, to her destination: the Warsaw airport. Despite not speaking the language or knowing where to go, Valentyna is thankful for the kindness of strangers.

“The Polish people were so kind and so warm and so welcoming and they were ready to just bring you into their homes,” she said.

Valentyna booked a flight to Canada on LOT, the Polish national airline. But the only plane with any seats left was to Toronto. She took it, but was forced to pay for it in cash, as the ticket agent told her they could not accept her daughter-in-law’s credit card number over the phone.

A Polish girl volunteered to drive Valentyna to a nearby airport hotel.

Once Valentyna landed in Toronto, she had to find her way through the maze of Pearson International Airport. She again marvels at people who helped her to find the right location for the airport shuttle to her hotel, where she would wait for her flight to Winnipeg the next day, March 9.

“A couple of gentlemen were standing at the pillar, so I showed them on my phone where I needed to go,” Valentyna said. “And one of the men said, ‘I’m keeping an eye on you and you keep an eye on me, and we’ll make sure that you get on the right bus.’”

During Valentyna’s day-long layover, she had an emotional encounter that she will never forget with a Canadian couple who were themselves heading to Saskatchewan.

Not only did the woman arrange to print Valentyna’s boarding pass, and accompany her to her room, but she then pressed $220 into the Ukrainian refugee’s hands.

“She was crying,” Valentyna said, adding that she only learned the woman’s first name and an email address. It was someone called Susan who was travelling with her husband.

The Winnipeg family tried to email the Good Samaritan back and repay the money, but instead, they received a second donation from her.

“From the airport in Toronto, my mother-in-law told us with joy how she’s been treated and what was going on, and I told her to get used to it, because that’s what it’s like here in Canada,” Yelena said.

ukrainian refugee in Winnipeg
Valentyna Agapova, (left) escaped on a 1,000 kilometre journey across war-torn Ukraine to safety in Poland, and arrived at her family’s Winnipeg home on March 9, 2022. Her daughter-in-law Yelena Agapov helped her navigate airports, hotels and visas, by phone.

The younger woman’s own experience with a Canadian welcome dates back to 2016, when she was in contact with the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg’s outreach program for new immigrants, called GrowWinnipeg. The program works with Jewish or Jewish-identifying families who want to build better lives in Canada. They bring them in as new immigrants from places where Jewish life is difficult or dangerous, including Argentina, Turkey, and Brazil. That has included 65 families with Ukrainian heritage, including some like Yelena’s who came first, via Israel.

Yelena traces her Jewish heritage back to her Ukrainian grandfather. That qualified her to join thousands of Ukrainians making aliyah to Israel in 1998. She lived in Israel with her husband Denis, who is Valentyna’s son, and their own two children, a daughter and a son.

The family immigrated to Winnipeg in 2017, although their daughter went back to Israel to complete her service in the Israel Defence Force (IDF). Now 24, she has recently married an Israeli and the couple lives in Winnipeg. Yelena’s son attended a Jewish summer camp in Winnipeg during his first summer in Canada.

The Winnipeg Jewish community did not play a role in helping his grandmother get to Canada from Ukraine. According to the family, Valentyna was able to travel using a Canadian visitor’s visa dating back from her 2019 visit. She had come to see her son and his family settling into their new lives in the city.

And while Valentyna herself is not Jewish, the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg featured her last week in a Facebook post known as Welcome Wednesdays.

“It is our duty to provide a safe haven or safe passage today, without focusing on religion or immigration requirements,” said Gustavo Zentner, the president of the Federation. He pointed out that he, too, is an immigrant who moved to Canada 25 years ago.

While most of the newcomers use the Winnipeg program to get to Canada where they build richer Jewish lives and improve their financial situation, the Jewish community is preparing for any Ukrainian refugees who want to come to Winnipeg because of the war.

“Unfortunately, we have not seen big numbers from Ukraine as we thought,” said Zentner.

In the meantime, the Jewish community launched an appeal for donations that will send money to the Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel already working on the ground in Poland.  As of last week, $155,000 was raised.

Valentyna’s family had to pay for private medical coverage for her until her paperwork is processed. The two-time cancer survivor is healthy now, her daughter-in-law said, and suffered no serious health problems during her escape.

According to the Jewish Federation’s Zentner, health coverage should be provided immediately to Ukrainian refugees by the provincial government.

“Part of the next effort that I’m going to be leading is to ensure that the government provides the basic needs during their stay,” he said.

Jewish Federation of Winnipeg welcomed Valentyna Agapova on the community’s social media accounts.

While the Canadian government is permitting Ukrainian refugees to stay here for up to three years temporarily, Valentyna Agapova has decided she is not going to go back home once the war ends.

“It’s not even a thought in my mind. My loved ones are here. I hit the jackpot!” she said, as she hugged her daughter-in-law, then wiped away tears. “The fact that I can feel her is a miracle.”

Valentyna had her first taste of living in a war zone back in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, although ironically she was not in the country at the time. Instead, she was visiting her family in Israel. But she was running to shelters that same summer, when the Jewish state was fighting a war against Hamas in Gaza, called Operation Protective Edge. Now, having lived through war for the second time, Valentyna is ready for peace and quiet.

On Tuesday, Valentyna was released from her two-week long quarantine, and can start discovering the city. She has now begun her first formal English lessons with a group.

Her grandson is also helping by trying to teach her simple words.

Next, the family hopes Valentyna’s application to be considered as a skilled worker will be approved, although they aren’t sure how long that will take. Back home, she was a hairdresser, and said she travelled to styling competitions in Russia and elsewhere.

She remains grateful for all the volunteers who helped her make it to Canada, and to the Jewish community for welcoming her to Winnipeg.

“I didn’t expect such attention and such kind warmth from the community in the same way that I didn’t expect it from the woman at the airport,” Valentyna said.