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168 Ukrainian refugees depart Poland in chartered flight to St. John’s in culmination of weeks of work by a team of officials in Warsaw

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A group of Ukrainian refugees gather for a bus to take them to the airport in Katowice, Poland, where they will board a charter flight to Newfoundland.Photography by Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

Olga Antoniuk knows nothing about Newfoundland and Labrador, but she can’t wait to get there and leave the war in Ukraine far behind.

Ms. Antoniuk and her husband, Ivan, along with their cats – Bella and Simba – were among 168 Ukrainian refugees in Poland who took a chartered flight to St. John’s on Monday from Katowice, which is south of Warsaw.

The couple are from Chernivtsi, in western Ukraine, and ever since Russia’s invasion began on Feb. 24, Ms. Antoniuk has been consumed with worry and looking for a way to get out. She used to run a real-estate company but that ended when the fighting broke out, and now she and her husband – who was exempt from Ukraine’s prohibition on adult men leaving because he also holds Romanian citizenship – are hoping to find work and start a family in Newfoundland. They’re both 30 and having a child in Ukraine seemed inconceivable to her.

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Ukrainian refugee Ivan Antoniuk, 30, checks on his cat, Bella, as he waits to embark on the first leg of the journey to Newfoundland.

“We dream about a child but we can’t do that right now in Ukraine. I have, everyday, stress. Big stress. And it’s not normal. You think just about this war,” Ms. Antoniuk said while waiting at an airport hotel Monday morning for a bus to the terminal. “I think that in Canada we can start a new life, a really new life.”

The charter flight represented the culmination of weeks of work by a team of provincial officials who have been in Warsaw since late March pitching Newfoundland to refugees. “We’ve been meeting Ukrainians on the streets, we’ve been visiting some shelters, we had some relationships built with various organizations across the city of Warsaw and outside, and we put a huge emphasis on social media as well,” said Sonia Parker, a provincial immigration officer who was born in Poland. “We didn’t know how it was going to end up. But here we are, the plane is pretty much full.”

Where are the Ukrainian refugees going?

Newfoundland and Labrador launch recruitment campaign for Ukrainian refugees on the streets of Warsaw

The Canadian government has introduced a special visa program that will allow Ukrainian refugees to stay in the country for as long as three years. Newfoundland has been eager to encourage as many as possible to settle on the rock.

After arriving in St. John’s, the refugees will be put up in hotels for two weeks while volunteers and aid agencies help them find jobs, permanent housing and schools for their children. More refugees could soon be coming; the team has a long list of people eager to make the next flight.

Many of the Ukrainians who flew out on Monday already had big plans for their future in Newfoundland.

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Serhii Firsikov, 30, and his wife, Agnieszka, 29, are among the Ukrainian refugees waiting to board a flight from Katowice to Newfoundland.

Serhii Firsikov, 30, wants to open a barber shop and he’s hoping that by relocating to Canada he’ll also encourage his parents to leave Ukraine and join him. Mr. Firsikov happened to be in Poland when the war started. He stayed in Warsaw with his wife and volunteered with a humanitarian organization.

He’s worried about his parents, who live near Irpin, the scene of some of the worst combat. “At 5 a.m. on Feb 24, my mom called me and said the war had begun. You cannot be preparing for such information,” he said Monday as he waited for the airport bus. “Everyday I’m afraid they won’t call.”

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Marina Chernova and her six-year old son are among those relocating to Canada.

The flight to Canada was also something of a dream come true for Mr. Firsikov. “When I was 10 years old, my mom asked me ‘What do you wish?’,” he recalled. “And I said, I want to live in Toronto.” He’s now sold on Newfoundland because of a passion he’s developed for whales and peaceful living. “We realized that we wanted some kind of family city. That’s why we decided to go to Newfoundland. We’re super thankful for this.”

Mahmoud Atris, 25, plans to finish his medical studies in Newfoundland and become a surgeon. He was close to graduating from a university in Kyiv when Russian missiles starting falling around his house in nearby Zhytomyr. “I could see all the bombing from my window. The Russians were just down the street.”

He found the Newfoundland program online a few weeks ago and couldn’t wait to apply. He was so eager to get on the plane that he was one of the first refugees waiting for the bus at the airport hotel.

“I’m so nervous, actually,” he said. “It was never on my mind that I would be going to Canada. I hope I’ll be able to give back and be grateful for this opportunity that I’ve been given.”

Iryna Zozulia, 27, has already been offered a customer service job with a Canadian aviation company. She’s from Lviv in western Ukraine and she laughed when asked what she knew about Newfoundland. After a quick online search she concluded; “It’s beautiful. The pictures are nice.” Then her friend piped up with a smile; “The winter is long.”

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Mahmoud Atris, a 25-year-old medical student from Kyiv, prepares to leave for Newfoundland where he hopes to continue his studies and become a surgeon.

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Natalia Semenets and her 16-year-old son, Serhii, share some final words before Serhii leaves Poland and begins the journey to Newfoundland.

For Marina Chernova, Newfoundland represented a chance to get her six-year-old son, Damyr, to safety. She’s also from Chernivtsi and felt that the city was becoming too dangerous. She had done some research on the province. “We see that Newfoundland has very beautiful nature and I read that there are very kind and good people there,” she said.

Not everyone plans to stay in Newfoundland or Canada long term.

Serhii Semenets, 16, was headed to St. John’s on his own on Monday. Unlike many of the others, Mr. Semenets has some insider knowledge of the province. His sister lived in Newfoundland for four years while studying, and although she now works in Britain she’ll be returning to St. John’s with her husband, who is a mathematics professor. In the meantime, Mr. Semenets will live with one of her friends.

On Monday as he sat in the airport hotel lobby with his mother, who accompanied him on the trip to Katowice from their home in Zhytomyr to say goodbye, Mr. Semenets talked about his future. He wants to study political science and then become a politician. “When I finish studying, I will go to Ukraine,” he said. “I want to live in Ukraine and make my city comfortable for life.”

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