Lilia Vovk knew it was time to get out of Ukraine when the bombs started falling on a nearby town.
“When the war started in our country, we were scared about their future,” she said of her three children.
“We didn’t know what was going on and what would go on after.”
She and her family fled to Poland three days after the start of the war in February 2022.
Now, she’s a dedicated volunteer at the Ukrainian Newcomer Furniture Warehouse and the Free Store For Ukrainian Newcomers in Edmonton — two of the many institutions that have sprung up in the last year to help those fleeing the war in Ukraine. In many cases, the people running these institutions are themselves Ukrainians.
“This help is very needed,” Vovk said, when asked why she volunteers.
“We want to also be helpful for other families.”
Warehouses and free stores
Most Ukrainian newcomers in the St. Albert and Sturgeon County region have at some point visited the Furniture Warehouse and the Free Store. Each serves as a clearinghouse for donations to help Ukrainians get the basics for their first home.
The Ukrainian Canadian Congress – Alberta Provincial Council started the Furniture Warehouse in April 2022 to collect and distribute donated furniture for newcomers, said council president Orysia Boychuk. The warehouse is located in a space donated by the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers Lodge Local 146.
The warehouse looks like a cross between an Ikea and a tank factory. Rows of couches and sofas lounge near giant steel pressure vessels. Customers peruse tables and shelves crowded with glasses and ceramic kittens set up by racks of iron chains and huge metal valves.
The warehouse is meant to set families up with the basics for a home, Boychuk said: beds, tables, dressers, dishes, and especially mattresses. Some 350 newcomer families visit it each month, helped by about 35 volunteers.
Most Ukrainian newcomers did not come to Canada by choice and were not prepared to start life over in a new country, Vovk said. Few have the cash on hand to furnish an apartment on arrival.
“People come here with nothing. We come here, we have only three bags of clothing,” she said.
Ukrainian newcomers can come to the warehouse to get whatever they need for their first home, said warehouse customer service co-ordinator Sofiia Hrynevch, who arrived from Ukraine eight months ago. Volunteers help customers strap jumbles of furniture to truck-beds and unload the three-to-10 carloads of donations that pour in each day.
“We need volunteers every day,” Hrynevch said, particularly to move heavy items and to advise customers on what items to get.
Free Store co-founder Janice Krissa-Moore said she started collecting donations soon after the Feb. 24 invasion to help relatives in Ukraine — her sister-in-law had to flee the country with one pair of underwear. She soon had way more stuff than she needed, and established the Free Store last April to give the donations away.
Initially located on 104th Street, the Free Store moved to its current, bigger location just north of MacEwan University in February 2023. Inside, the store is jammed wall-to-wall with coats, shirts, shoes, mugs, plates, microwaves, and more. Step sideways, and you can barely squeeze between the racks of clothes and the 30-plus customers and volunteers. Check out the walls as you shop — they’re covered in colourful murals painted by Ukrainian volunteers.
Some 160 families check out the store each week, Krissa-Moore said. Most are single mothers or others in high-need situations.
“Just look around your house and imagine leaving all that behind. They get all of that at the Free Store.”
Krissa-Moore said about 90 per cent of the store’s staff are newcomers from Ukraine. About 80 per cent of people who come to the store offer to volunteer until they find jobs.
“It’s lonely to come here alone and not be able to speak your native language,” she said, when asked why so many newcomers come out as volunteers.
Volunteering at places like the Free Store takes people’s minds off the war and gives them a sense of community, she continued. Volunteering helps people feel like they’ve accomplished something, and can lead to lasting friendships.
“It’s all about helping each other.”
St. Albert Ukrainian newcomer Tetiana Rozhkova said she got help from the Free Store when she arrived in Alberta last May, and started volunteering there while she was looking for a job. Now, she’s donating strollers and diapers back to the store, and plans to resume volunteering there as soon as she finds a daycare for her newborn son.
“It’s a very good thing to do this for this community and for Ukrainians as well,” she said.
“This is the right thing (to do). If you have the time, you can donate it.”
Vovk said places like the warehouse offer not just material goods, but opportunities for newcomers to make friends. It also gives them the knowledge that others out there want to help.
“I feel that I’m not alone,” she said.