Alina Vendel thought she would never leave Ukraine. She had a comfortable job working as a medical representative for AstraZeneca, and her husband was a manager for a pharmaceutical company. She was surrounded by family and many friends.
“We have a nice, have good life in Ukraine. We were happy.”
But around 5 a.m. on February 24, 2022, she woke to the sounds of bombs and helicopters. It was the first day of the Russian invasion and the Antonov Airport in her hometown of Hostomel — just outside of Kyiv — was under attack by the Russian military in an attempt to capture the city.
Suddenly, Vendel, her husband and her cat had to flee.
Since many Ukrainian refugees like Vendel have been forced to leave their homes, Calgarians have been engaging in efforts to support them as they adjust to life in the city.
Among them, Bill Overend who, with his family, took in Vendel, her husband and cat for six weeks and later helped them find an apartment to live in.
Overend read an article about the crisis in the Calgary Herald, which included a link to the website icanhelp.host that allows people to post their addresses so Ukrainian refugees can find them.
“I was struck by all the news media coverage of it and the images I was seeing, and it just didn’t seem to fit in our world,” Overend says. “It just really struck me and yet it seemed remote… and a few weeks later, I realized I was not remote.”
With his son in Australia for the summer, Overend had a spare bedroom to offer refugees. After putting his address on the site, he received responses from five or six families looking for a place to stay.
“And then I realized that one room in one house was not what I needed. It just felt insufficient.”
After spreading the word through Facebook, Overend connected with other people in his community of West Hillhurst to give presentations about the housing problem at the Hillhurst United Church and West Hillhurst Community Association.
Using Facebook, he was also able to match Ukrainian families with willing hosts in his community, and received clothing donations and offers to drive from others.
According to Overend, the Ukrainian refugees have often made exhaustive efforts to get in contact with people they can stay with.
“Trying to reach out to different countries and different cities within different countries, and many times, I’m sure they’re not getting any response. When they get a response, they’re extremely gratified, they’re thankful.”
Vendel echoes this sentiment, saying she was surprised by how accommodating Calgarians have been.
“It was a little bit strange for us, because we always do [it] all alone…and it was strange because I can’t believe that people can be so amazing.”
After connecting with St. Vladimir’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Calgary, Overend discovered there were many other like-minded individuals in the city doing what they could to help.
“I saw communities come together and it made me very happy to live in the communities we do.”
At Mount Royal University, Residence Services agreed to take in refugees for the summer at the East Residence townhouses, offering free amenities like access to MRU Recreation and the Riddell Library and Learning Centre.
Mark Keller, director of Residence Services for MRU, says he hopes the refugees can enjoy a quiet place to live as they figure out their next steps.
“The feedback that we’ve gotten is they’ve been very happy to have found a place where they can kind of catch their breath and they don’t have to worry about housing, they don’t have to worry about a lot of things.”
Vendel has also found her worries alleviated after staying with Overend’s family.
“They not only give for us a home, they give for us more than home.”
In his first Google Meet with Vendel and her husband, Overend recalls promising to be their friends in Calgary.
“And now they are our best friends,” Overend says. “They’re in Banff this weekend, and we’re taking care of their cat for them.”
He helped them get an apartment, buy a car, start English lessons and find jobs.
“It’s not similar work than in Ukraine, but it’s good work,” Vendel says. “And now I think we live not bad.”
Although she has found a safe haven in Calgary, Vendel still feels connected to her home.
“Every morning, I wake up and read news,” Vendel says. “I speak with my relatives, speak to my friends every day and I [am] worried about Ukraine, because it’s my motherland and I [would] never leave Ukraine if war [had] not happened.”
For Overend, watching the refugees overcome adversity has been a revitalizing experience.
“It was very valuable for me to meet these people, not only to be able to help them but to see them landing on their own two feet and restarting their lives. It’s just totally inspiring.”