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‘As far as possible from Russia’: Ukrainian family from Kherson tells their story

After three months under Russian occupation in their hometown of Kherson, Dar’ya Shyshko and her family decided they had to get out however they could and get as far from Russia and its soldiers as they could go.
The Shyshko family (l-r Sergei, Dar'ya, Milana, and Masha) are now safe in Moose Jaw

After three months under Russian occupation in their hometown of Kherson, Dar’ya Shyshko and her family decided they had to get out however they could and get as far from Russia and its soldiers as they could go.

Dar’ya Shyshko told her story in an interview with

[Warning: this article contains graphic descriptions of war and war crimes. Reader discretion is advised.]

“We were really scared to leave (Kherson) because they had an order to not let out anyone — they would kill,” Shyshko said. “When you drive on the highway from the city, you can see lots of cars on the sides of the road, just burnt down. They killed those people in those cars.”

Shyshko’s sister had fled Kherson with her family on the first day of the war. Shyshko and her husband Sergei didn’t have a garage of their own, so they obtained the keys to her sister’s garage and hid their car there.

They didn’t dare try to use it at first, however. Driving on the streets was not safe, and people who tried to leave just after Kherson’s capture risked being killed or interrogated in ‘the basement’ — a euphemism for the detention and torture chambers the Russians set up to suppress resistance.

In between power and internet outages, residents of Kherson shared stories and photos on Telegram, a messaging app that encrypts conversation end-to-end.

The situation was grim, Shyshko said.

“When we had connection, we could read that there are ways to escape the city. There was one group which was created to escape from the city, and people were writing their comments there. For example, ‘Don’t go yet, the Russians will not let you out.’

“They wrote everything, like, ‘the Russians will search your car, they will search your phone.’”

Shyshko said she couldn’t share any pictures from the occupation, because when she and Sergei decided to try leaving, they wiped their phones of all data in case they were searched.

“I was scared to take a picture because …. They can take you to the basement,” Shyshko explained, “and torture you to death.”

Three separate escape attempts

After three months, with the Ukrainian military making gains and Russian soldiers distracted, word on Telegram began to be more hopeful.

“When I started reading that they are letting people out, I said, ‘OK, let’s just leave everything.’ We didn’t care about our apartment, our stuff, nothing. … because they were walking through all the apartments searching for weapons and taking out men.

“Because what Russians thought is there are partisans. In the apartments, in the garages, in the houses, just hiding.”

The first time they tried to get out, they had to sneak past the lethal 8 p.m. curfew to get their car. They drove through a field to bypass streets patrols and made it to a roadblock outside the city, joining a line of other vehicles.

After seven hours, nothing had moved, so they drove back. They parked in a field and slept in the car until they could safely return it to the garage.

The second time, they were forced to drive through roadblock after roadblock.

“There were so many Russians,” Shyshko said. “And they’re searching you, they make you come out of the car, they search your documents, they ask you questions, and they can take whatever they want. They can do whatever they want.

“No one is going to say, ‘Oh, you’re not allowed to touch our belongings.’ If they want your phone, they say, ‘Oh, Apple, I love this phone,’ or ‘I like your watch, take it off.’

“What people were doing, just to get rid of them, they were taking cigarettes, alcohol, money, saying, ‘Don’t touch us, just take it and don’t touch us.’”

Leaving Ukraine

The third time was more roadblocks, more inspections, more waiting — nine hours, Shyshko said. But they made it, driving out from occupied territory through the no-man’s-land gray zone between the lines.

Finally, they saw Ukrainian soldiers.

“There were our Ukrainian defenders. We were so happy, hugging them and kissing them. And they gave to my children candies and stuff,” Shyshko said, tearing up. “Because we ran out and we didn’t have any sweets. It was nice.”

They drove to Mykolaiv, but the city was so severely damaged that most of the residents hadn’t had water in months. So they moved on to Odesa.

“We rented an apartment there, and we decided to go to Canada, and we applied for our visas there,” Shyshko explained. “It is still Ukraine, but it is still dangerous.”

Although Odesa had air defences, a military presence, and law enforcement, missiles fired indiscriminately from Russia were occasionally making it through. Shyshko couldn’t take any more.

“There are lots of missile attacks. … And yeah, a few residential houses got hit, and even kids were dying. So, I said, I just want a safe place. And I said to my husband, let’s go as far as possible from Russia.”

Eventually, they went to Poland and flew from there to Canada.

Arriving in Moose Jaw

“My husband was looking for a smaller town,” Shyshko explained. “We liked Saskatchewan because of the Ukrainian roots and heritage here. We read about it on the internet and he just googled, and Moose Jaw came up on top of the list of the safest smaller cities.

“Safety was priority number one, I wanted just a quiet, peaceful place.”

The welcome they received upon arriving in Saskatchewan was more than they could ever have expected.

They applied for a house with Moose Jaw Housing Authority (MJHA) before even leaving Poland. Then Dar’ya found a Facebook group called Moose Jaw Mommies and told them her situation.

The community of Moose Jaw took it from there. After three long flights — the first time any of them had flown — to get from Poland to Regina, they were exhausted and without a plan. A contact from Facebook picked them from the airport and drove them to Moose Jaw. Another booked a hotel for the family for the three days it would take before they could move into their MJHA house.

When they did move in, the house was almost completely bare. There were only cupboards, a stove, and a refrigerator. A Facebook group called Ukraine help and exchange in Moose Jaw, started by Moose Javians including Glenda James, Christy Schweiger, and Gale Reader co-ordinated people from Moose Jaw and surrounding area to fill the house, room by room.

Kitchen supplies, tables, chairs, living room furniture, clothes, bedding, and more were all quickly donated. Others donated gift cards to Walmart or Carter’s.

“We got such great help here, and support, and so many people came to welcome us,” Shyshko said. “We’re so grateful to everyone who helped us, who took the time to write ‘welcome’ on our Facebook post, who offered their help.”

Shyshko tried to keep a list of everyone who had helped, but it got so long she decided not to for fear of leaving someone out.

She gestured around her new home. “Everything you see here, people donated to us.”

The children are now attending Sacred Heart School, where Dar’ya has a job as an educational assistant. Sergei is learning English from his new co-workers at Doepker. They pick him up for work, and drop him off, so he doesn’t have to walk in the cold.

“This group from Facebook … It’s a great help for everyone. People are supporting us, and they try their best, you can feel that. It touches me. It melts my heart because these are just simple people who have sympathy towards us Ukrainians.

“You can see we lost everything, but we gained so much. At the end, here we are, safe. We have jobs, we can work. Over there, living in occupation, we didn’t have that. I can’t say that was life.”

Kherson is liberated

On Nov. 11, Kherson was liberated by Ukrainian forces. Dar’ya and Sergei Shyshko will go back one day, when the war is over, and the monster stopped.

[This is the third part of a three-part story, from an interview with Dar’ya Shyshko. The first article covers the initial invasion of Kherson in the early days of the warThe second article covers the three months that the Shyshko family lived under Russian occupation, and the third tells the story of their arrival in Moose Jaw — and the welcome they’ve received here.]

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