(Irpin) Why come home when there’s no home?

This is undoubtedly the question that Oleksandra Verovkina asks herself.

The 36-year-old had already dreamed of coming to Canada when Russian separatist forces seized the Donbass region where she lived. She ditched that idea in 2020 when she and her husband Oleksi bought a relatively new apartment in Irpin, a town on the outskirts of Kyiv. It was their first property.

“When we moved to Irpin, I fell in love with the town. It was wonderful, she recalls. You could feel a community spirit there. »

But the family no longer lives there.

In the early morning of February 24, 2022, Oleksandra was awakened by her phone ringing. Emerging from her sleep, she heard explosions in the distance.

“When we woke up, we started to hear the bombs, the fighting, the helicopters,” she said.

They were the Russians. Coming from Belarus, tanks were heading towards Kyiv. Bombers struck the country from the first hours of the invasion.

The call came from his brother. He asked her what she intended to do. She didn’t know.

She and her husband left home with some basic necessities: toiletries, some clothes, toys and books for their son Danylo. Oleksandra’s favorite sweater was in the washer. She left it there.

Both knew the journey would be long. They rushed to leave when they heard bombs falling on a hotel not far from their home.

“We were scared,” acknowledges Oleksandra. Her husband told her to leave at 7 p.m. that evening, heading to Khmelnytskyi, in southwestern Ukraine, where her brother’s partner lives. A 12-hour drive in heavy traffic.

Before leaving, the woman quickly came back inside the apartment to take out the garbage. She didn’t want her home to stink when she got back.

She didn’t even take a last look as the family set off.

A year later, the smell of pine trees mingles with that of burnt metal and ash. The roof is gone. Debris litters the ground.

For the next month, the Oleksandra family stayed with her brother’s partner. Six people crammed into a two-room apartment. At night, after the air raid had ended, she would fall asleep in the hallway with her son, as far away from a window as possible.

As Russian troops occupied Irpin, returning home was impossible.

But Oleksandra was not then ready to leave Ukraine. Since men between the ages of 18 and 60 must remain in the country under martial law, she did not want to leave without her husband.

“I thought it was better if we stayed as a family,” she said.

However, as soon as Oleksi learned that Ukrainian refugees were eligible for a three-year temporary Canadian visa, he managed to get the application forms.

Oleksandra filled out the form from the first day of the program. She received immediate approval from Canadian authorities for her and her son. Less than a week later, both headed for Romania.

And on March 26, 2022, she learned that her beloved apartment in Irpin no longer existed. It had been destroyed by fire.

And even if the Ukrainian army managed to liberate the city, Oleksandra was comforted in her decision to flee the country.

“We have nothing left in Ukraine,” she laments.

Today, she rents a house in Ottawa. She lives there with her son, her parents and a friend. Oleksi remained in Kyiv where he plans to find a job before joining his family in Canada.

The two talk to each other twice a day.

Even though Oleksandra accepts what happened, she still has a twinge in her heart when she sees what her apartment has become.

“It looks awful,” she said calmly, looking at photographs and videos recently taken at Irpin by La Presse Canadienne. I would like to cry watching this. People worked hard to buy these apartments. And wham ! Everything is gone. »

Reconstruction work has started in Irpin, but in the neighborhood where Oleksandra lived, the buildings seem to be doomed beyond repair. And the signs of the violence that hit the city last year remain clearly visible, including the craters created by the bombs.

Oleksandra sometimes misses her old life. Sometimes it’s the little things she misses the most, like her cozy NASA logo sweater, the one she forgot in her laundry.

She can’t imagine her return at the moment. She fears that the place is dangerous for her son, a fallout from the war.

The young woman is rebuilding her life in Ottawa.

“I feel like a Canadian,” she says. She believes she and her son can adjust to their new, safe environment.