From Odessa to Ottawa:

Venice Smolnik, recently arrived from Ukraine, is touched by a surprise birthday celebration.

A harrowing war-torn journey

By Venice Smolnik

My name is Venice, and I come from Ukraine. At the age of 23, just a few days after my birthday, I have gone through hell and back.

I was born and lived my whole life in Odessa. My mother abandoned me when I was 13, and my father died just last year. I have nobody else. I had an uneasy upbringing, and I only had one year to overcome grief and adjust to living on my own. I hoped that things would get better in 2022, and then the war struck my country.

I have been friends with Lauren Wohlfarth, whose family lives in the Glebe, for a long time, and when she told me that her family was willing to shelter me, I cried. Not only because I was touched by their kindness, but also because I had to face the fact that I was leaving behind the only home I ever knew.

I left my home on the evening of March 4, after hearing about an evacuation train heading to Lviv.

The wagon was filled to the brim with people. We were standing in the train’s hallway, thankful that we got on. Thankful for the 15-hour train ride we would have to endure standing through the night. Thankful for a chance to survive. I spent the night lying awake on the floor of a train room.

When we arrived in Lviv, we were greeted by lines of white tents and volunteers who offered warm food and supplies to everyone. They gave me hope and also a warm bowl of borscht.

Next, an hour-long bus ride dropped all of us off at a gas station in the middle of nowhere, with a very vague idea of where the Poland border was. Apparently it was 30 kilometres away.

I lost the people I was travelling with, but found more people soon. Way more people.

I ended up in the middle of a tightly packed crowd of people that lasted for many, many kilometres. So little space was left, we simply couldn’t walk. We had to stand for hours and then take a half a metre step towards the destination. Occasionally, everyone was asked to make way for the cars filled with humanitarian help, heading towards Ukraine. It became harder and harder, as more people came.

It took around 24 hours to reach the gates to Poland. And after hours of waiting, finally, they simply opened the gates and let us in. People – women and their young children – had spent the night standing and waiting, with very limited food and water. I wish none of those kids ever got to experience the hell that this line was.

Crossing over the border seemed to give everyone a second wind.

After another bus ride, we were brought to a refugee centre. A simple building filled with enough mattresses and resources, but seemingly more people than it was able to shelter.

I was lost, sick and hungry, and I had yet to find a way to travel to Vienna, where I was to meet up with Lynn Armstrong, Lauren’s mother. I asked the volunteers for help, but none of them knew how to help me. Then one of the volunteers said he will get me help. He said he will call his friends, and they’ll take me to a safe place where more Ukrainian families are right now.

I admit I was scared. To be told by a person you just met that a car will take you to a safe place in the middle of the night was a risky offer to take. I had nobody to find me if it had gone wrong.

But it didn’t. They brought me to a safe private house in the outskirts of Poland, where I was given my own bed, food and medical attention that I needed. I had no idea where I was, but surrounded by brave soldiers and more Ukrainian families, I finally felt safe. I fell asleep for the first time in three days.

The first time I woke up, still sick, I had every Ukrainian mother who was also sheltering in that house come into my room and offer me various types of medicine for my flu. After a few days, I was doing much better. I just had to find a way to travel to Vienna.

And the volunteers from that place made it possible in the safest way imaginable. They had people – a group of friends who had a van – who were taking Ukrainians to their specific destinations in Europe. I travelled along as they delivered an elderly pair to Germany. They were incredibly caring with us, staying awake to drive through the night and getting us food along the way. After delivering the elderly pair to their destination and making sure they were safe, they took me to the hotel in Vienna and walked inside with me until I was in my room.

The next morning, Lynn arrived at that hotel. For the next month, she guided me through the process of getting a Canadian visa. It had ups and downs, but in the end I got my visa. And I was finally able to enter the world of kindness and maple syrup known as Canada.

Lauren’s family has been incredibly kind to me. Not only have they given me shelter, they’ve also given me the care and support I’ve never had before. To my surprise, I got to celebrate my birthday again, this time crying from happiness I still find hard to believe.

And just recently, I was able to find out the name of the organization that sheltered me and gave me a ride. They call themselves IMES (Immediate Medical and Evacuation Service), and they are simply a group of volunteers who couldn’t sit at home and do nothing, as we were suffering. I was told they have grown since I was last there, now having about 200 cars helping them take displaced Ukrainians to their safe destinations across the whole of Europe.

As an organization, they depend on donations to keep on delivering humanitarian help and delivering us to safer places. For those interested to help, their site is I cannot thank them enough for making Ukrainians feel safe in the darkest moments of our lives.

Venice Smolnik, a resident of Odessa, Ukraine, made the treacherous journey from Odessa to Ottawa to escape the war, with help from friends in the Glebe.

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