In late February, when the bombs started falling in the middle of the night on Kharkiv, Ukraine, Olena Hrushytska, 37, her son, Oleksandr (Sasha) Hrushytskyi, 6, and her fiancé, Sergiy Adamenko, 41, left their home and made their way to a subway station where many others were seeking shelter from the blasts.
They were accompanied by Adamenko’s parents and Hrushytska’s mom, a young friend, three dogs and a cat.
Life underground lasted a day. It was uncomfortable. Sasha was sleeping on a blanket on the floor; the older parents were unable to sleep at all.
They returned to their house, which they attempted to fortify as best they could. They blocked windows by stacking books and taped window panes.
When they heard the bombs, which sounded like huge tractors, they would escape to what they felt was the safest room and would shelter Sasha with their bodies.
Hrushytska wrote important information on slips of paper and put them into Sasha’s pockets so that if something happened to her or Adamenko, rescuers could help Sasha find his way to other family members living in different Ukrainian cities.
Initially, Adamenko and Hrushytska’s parents wanted to stay in Kharkiv, hoping to ride out the storm.
"Everyone is going, or no one is going," Hrushytska said. The older parents realized they were putting their children and grandchild’s lives at risk by staying, and agreed to leave.
Hrushytska contacted Sasha’s biological father to see if he wanted to visit with his son again. However, it wasn’t possible. He resided in another Kharkiv suburb and it was too dangerous to make his way to the family for fear of encountering snipers along the route. They video-chatted instead and he gave them his blessing to leave with Sasha.
After three days in the house, the crew of six adults, one child, three dogs and one elderly cat piled into a car and drove southwest towards Romania.
"You feel fear at first, then you feel guilt of surviving," Hrushytska says of her experience fleeing her city, in northeast Ukraine. She has been sharing her experiences of passing through different checkpoints and cities in Ukrainian community Facebook groups to help others who may also want to leave.
Hrushytska and Adamenko met more than 20 years ago when they were 15 and 20. They felt they were soulmates. But back then, their age gap seemed too big, so they didn’t pursue a relationship. They went on with their lives.
Hrushytska gave birth to Sasha but then separated with his father. Adamenko also married and went through a divorce.
Adamenko and Hrushytska reconnected in January 2020 and he proposed to her in October that year.
Adamenko had moved to Winnipeg in 2014 and was splitting his time between Canada and Ukraine. When the Russian bombs started to fall, he rushed to Kharkiv knowing Hrushytska and Sasha would need help escaping.
The group passed through multiple checkpoints on their way to the border. En route, members of the Ukrainian military played with Sasha, calming him in a stressful time. Sasha saluted the soldiers at every checkpoint and yelled: "Slava Ukraini," which means "Glory to Ukraine."
The group slept in a hospital in Kropyvnytskyi and stayed in a house for free in the village of Chernivtsi. Adamenko’s parents stayed behind in the village to help others fleeing, as did Hrushytska’s elderly cat, who was too old to continue the journey.
The group of five eventually reached the Romanian border town of Siret. Adamenko’s Canadian passport allowed him to pass through, as Ukrainian men cannot leave the country right now. They must stay to help defend Ukraine.
In the northwestern Romanian city of Cluj-Napoca, and finally far enough away from the war, the group stayed in a hotel. They took their first shower in the 12 days since their exodus began.
Over the next few days, they passed through Budapest, Hungary, and Munich, Germany, before arriving in Dusseldorf where they applied for Canadian visas for Hrushytska and Sasha.
The visas were processed in four weeks and soon they were on their way. Hrushytska’s mother, her two dogs and their 24-year old friend stayed behind in Germany as they didn’t have Ukrainian passports needed to leave the EU.
On April 14, Adamenko, Hrushytska, Sasha and their dog arrived in Toronto from Amsterdam. They had been on the road for more than a month. They flew to Winnipeg on April 16, their final destination for now.
Two days later, Hrushytska celebrated her 37th birthday with a small group of friends and a large bouquet of flowers.
They’ve been busy rebuilding their lives. Hrushytska started two part-time jobs — as a funeral home hostess and as a Ukrainian language interpreter — and Sasha has begun attending a local Ukrainian school.
They’re currently staying in a friend’s basement while they regroup and settle into their new city.