Aniela Hannaford was walking into Walmart as the information of four Ukrainian passports were sent to her phone.
Viktoriia Katsal and Christian Egwuom trusted Hannaford enough to send not only their own passport information, but also of their two children.
Hannaford now hosts Katsal, Egwuoam, and their kids David (10) and Filip (4) in private quarters at Browns’ Clearwater West Lodge near Atikokan.
The family fled their home in Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine to Poland, then Austria, and finally Canada where they’ve been since mid April.
Hannaford launched an organization called Atikokan Stands With Ukraine, where she looks to host refugees in the lodge she runs, to give them time to decide on their next steps.
She says her hope is to be able to provide a safe place for people coming from Ukraine.
“It allows them to decompress quietly, process what just happened, and intentionally choose their next community,” says Hannaford.
Hannaford is hoping to host several families fleeing from Ukraine. She says they are welcome to stay for a week, two, or more.
“Whatever time they need,” she says. “The main thing is that they are safe. We want to be able to provide that for as many families as possible.”
Hannaford relates this initiative to her own life. She thinks of what life might look like had her family not gotten help to flee Poland in the 40s.
“I wouldn’t be in this position,” says Hannaford. “I wouldn’t have the beautiful family that I have.”
She says the family is often stopped by community members welcoming them to town, asking how to help.
“The support is overwhelming at times,” says Hannaford. “It blows my mind.”
She says she estimates the donations they’ve received total close to $25,000.
Atikokan Stands With Ukraine runs some donations through Atikokan Fellowship Church, so they can issue tax receipts for donations over $100. The rest of the donations are accepted physically, or through GiveSendGo at givesendgo.com/G337B.
But Hannaford is blessed by more than just donations.
“The best sound I’ve heard in the past two weeks is hearing the kids laugh,” says Hannaford. “The boys are safe. They’re happy.”
She said the minute David and Filip arrived, they went straight to the LEGO with her three kids. Though the boys speak very little English, she says it’s been amazing to watch the children communicate.
“There’s no frustration,” says Hannaford. “There’s no limit to what they can play because they’re patient with one another.”
Katsal and Hannaford tend to communicate through Google Translate, while Egwuom is fluent in multiple languages including English.
“These are highly educated people that have had their entire lives and everything they worked and studied for literally ripped out from under them,” says Hannaford.
Egwuom was an electrical engineer back home, working toward a PhD. Hannaford says another future lodger has three degrees and worked as a lawyer in Ukraine.
Browns’ Clearwater West Lodge is expecting that family to arrive in a week or two, and another family to come in mid May. Hannaford says there’s a limit to how many people they will be able to help, but hopes to be able to sustain support for a long time.