A few words from the front lines

Ukraine Crisis Response

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Heather traveled to Romania to work in a refugee center and has been helping families and pets like Kateryna and Kitty since March. We are so grateful for her service.

Heather Black is the Chief Program and Technology Officer for VRL’s mission in Ukraine. Heather traveled to Romania to work in a refugee center, and has been helping displaced families since March of 2022.

My first contact with the Brahina family was with 10 year-old Kateryna. She used almost all of the English words she knew in our first conversation. “Cat, me, see?” And “Zaporizhzhia.” At the time, she knew only half a dozen words in English. I knew fewer than that in Ukrainian. She was quiet and thoughtful, studying my face intently with searching eyes, trying hard to understand what I was saying. The total of our combined understanding was precisely that, “Cat, me, see?” with the universal language of voice inflection adding the question mark. We eventually established that she was from Zaporizhzhia and I was from New Zealand.

The focus of her interest was a cat in residence at the refugee centre, where I am a volunteer. Kateryna wanted to see it and play with it. Like Kateryna’s family, the cat’s owners had fled Ukraine. They could not take their cat to their final destination of Vienna, due to a no pet policy in the temporary accommodation they had secured. All of the catteries and rescue centers in our area were full, so the refugee centre manager offered to play the role of Foster Mum for a few months, until the owners could return to collect the animal. This cat has delighted everyone, young and old, ever since.  If feline therapy is a “thing,” then it is alive and well.

Six weeks after my first encounter with Kateryna, and the clarity of my latest and almost ‘normal’ conversation with this gutsy 10 year-old brings me a smile. I’m semi-scolding her for riding a bike inside the centre. I’ve asked her numerous times to jump off the bike and walk with it inside the building. I’m still speaking in English, only managing to insert the occasional Ukrainian word into the mix. I now know a grand total of 32 Ukrainian words and 12 phrases, but it’s not nearly enough for this pseudo-parenting moment. Kateryna understands me perfectly, as she whizzes past. “I’m just getting my jacket. I’ll go back outside straight away,” she calls back casually, flashing a cheeky smile at me on her way past. She doesn’t need to study my face any more, to understand me.

I’m struck by how confident she is in her communications and in her ability to appease me. This firecracker of a kid has already got me right where she wants me! We initially bonded over a cat and it was a cat that would bring our worlds closer together.

Veterans Rebuilding Life responded to a request for assistance to help the family relocate to Canada. By the time their visas came through, I’d had dozens of conversations with them at the refugee centre. Some of those encounters were to organize the finer details of their departure. Some encounters just helped them improve their English, ready for the big move. My wider VRL team found a donor to sponsor their flights to Canada, and a pet specialist handled the needs of transporting their 4-year-old cat, “Kitty.”

Kateryna, along with her 6 year-old brother Dmytro, parents Olena and Vitalii are now in Calgary, Canada. The family is embarking upon this new stage of life, free of the horrors of war and the grave concerns for their safety—a much needed fresh start for all five of them.

Two weeks into their Canadian journey, family and feline are doing very well. Vitalii is starting a new job this coming Monday and they’ve found long-term accommodation to settle into.  Olena also secured a job that she will start when the children begin the school year in a couple of months. She tells me that the children have made friends already and are very happy.