At Maidan Market in Ottawa, Ukrainian volunteers find hope by helping

Anna Plugatyr, left, and her cousin Inna Savska, right, both volunteers at Maidan Market. Plugatyr came to Canada from Ukraine 22 years ago. Savska, from the hard-hit eastern city of Kharkov, arrived here on March 13. (Alistair Steele/CBC)

At Maidan Market in the Westgate Shopping Center in Ottawa, Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian invasion of their country can find everything they need.

Some of those items — clothing, food, diapers, and other essentials — fit neatly into a shopping basket.

Others—security, comfort, and the sense of belonging to a community despite being far from home—may not fit in the basket, but they are no less important.

I actually cried every day. Now I can help someone too.– Inna Savska

The store, a volunteer-led initiative spearheaded by the Ottawa branch of the Ukrainian-Canadian Congress (UCC) in partnership with the mall’s owner, RioCan, celebrated its grand opening on Monday.

There are racks of clothes for men, women and children, as well as toys and books in Ukrainian. Down a hallway are more rooms with shelves full of non-perishable foods, diapers, and enough personal hygiene products to stock a Shoppers Drug Mart.

Comfortable seating and resources are on hand for Ukrainians seeking help with translations, OHIP coverage, and mental health care.

It’s all free and in high demand.

VIEW | In the new Maidan Market at the Westgate Mall in Ottawa:

Maidan Market opens in Ottawa, offering free items for Ukrainians fleeing war

Olenka Reshitnyk-Bastian, founder of the Maidan Market, says the center offers products to Ukrainian newcomers. Katia Kolomiiets arrived in Canada with her children three weeks ago and is now volunteering at the market. 1:49

Festive opening a success

On opening day, the store was buzzing with shoppers and volunteers, most of whom spoke Ukrainian. A little girl with a long braid of brown hair moved excitedly from one shelf to another, filling her purse with coloring books and crayons.

Nearby, two women perused the selection of baby clothes, looking for newborn sizes.

Olya arrived in Ottawa from Kiev two weeks ago and is due to give birth in another week or two. Her husband, a member of the Ukrainian army, stayed behind. (CBC has agreed to withhold their last name for their protection.)

Olya said she and her husband decided it was time for her to flee their home near the hard-hit suburb of Irpin once the threat of a chemical attack became terrifyingly real.

Shoppers at Maidan Market rummage through the shelves on Monday. Due to a lack of storage space, the store is not currently accepting donations of tangible items, but may be making calls for specific items soon. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

When a woman from Ottawa offered her a place to stay, Olya jumped at the chance to escape to Canada.

“To protect the baby, I had to go,” she said through an interpreter. “Of course it’s very different to be here, but I focus on important things, like knowing I can get my baby to safety.”

Olya looked around the store and said she was amazed at the generosity on display.

“I am immensely grateful, immensely impressed with what is available here. While many Canadians would say it is the least they can do, in reality, for many people, it is so, so much.”

For now, Maidan Market is open three days a week: Monday, Thursday and Saturday. “We’ll see where the war, the crisis, the need is, and from there we move forward,” said Olenka Reshitnyk-Bastian, a coordinator in the Ottawa branch of the Ukrainian-Canadian Congress. (Alistair Steele/CBC)

Refugee became a volunteer

Inna Savska arrived in Ottawa with her mother and daughter in mid-March after fleeing Russian shelling in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. On Monday, she worked her first volunteer shift at Maidan Market.

“Because I want to help Ukrainian people, because I want to meet some Ukrainian people here to talk to them,” said Savska.

Often the conversation revolves around their homes in Ukraine, in particular who are still standing and who are not.

Savska shows an image of her home in Kharkov, which has so far prevented damage from shelling. She also has a photo of her mother’s apartment, which has been smashed into. Both women now live in Ottawa with Savska’s daughter. (Alistair Steele/CBC)

Using a home monitoring app on her cell phone, Savska nervously checks her own neat white house and sadly points to the plum tree that is just beginning to bloom.

“We’re trying to stay positive. It’s a bit difficult, but what can we do?” she sighs.

Savska said volunteering at Maidan Market has helped her take her mind off the terrible danger at home, where her husband still lives.

“Actually, I cried every day. Now I can help someone too.’

Maidan Market stocks a wide variety of essentials, and even a few surprises. “Everything from kid’s nasal aspirators to diapers to iPhone cases — I happen to have those,” Reshitnyk-Bastian said. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

‘A national thing’

Savska’s niece Anna Plugatyr, who arrived in Canada 22 years ago, said that accepting charity does not come naturally for many Ukrainians.

“It’s just a national matter. I think we see ourselves more as hosts than as people who accept help themselves,” she said.

“How do you rethink this whole idea that now you’re the one without everything, and now you’re the one looking for stuff?” Plugatyr asked, glancing at her cousin.

“I can see this transition that Inna is willing to give back and feel again in this position of helping and hosting.”

Olenka Reshitnyk-Bastian is the coordinator of the Ottawa branch of the Ukrainian-Canadian Congress and the driving force behind Maidan Market. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Olenka Reshitnyk-Bastian, a coordinator of the UCC branch in Ottawa and the driving force behind the Maidan market, described another volunteer from Ukraine who seemed reluctant to take the donated goods for himself.

“I asked her why, and she says, ‘I have seen just such evil in Ukraine that I have a hard time understanding the good,'” said Reshitnyk-Bastian, who speaks Ukrainian and is a volunteer himself.

On Monday, the woman went back to the store to pick up a few things she needed.

Volunteers made it happen

Many of the items on offer in the store were left over from a previous donation drive, a testament to this “fiercely giving community,” Reshitnyk-Bastian said, noting that it was the same spirit of generosity that fueled the grand opening of Monday was such a success.

“A hundred people in two days brought this together. Thursday I literally got the keys. Friday night it was empty,” she said. “It works, it’s great.”

Katia Kolomiiets recently arrived in Ottawa with her daughter Nastia (10) and son Dani (5). She now volunteers at Maidan Market, helping other Ukrainians displaced by the war to find what they need. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Katia Kolomiiets is another volunteer. Kolomiiets and her children, Nastia (10) and Dani (5), also found refuge in Ottawa after the war forced them out of their home in Poltava, about 140 kilometers west of Kharkov.

The children are already enrolled in school and are making new friends, she said.

“I’m very happy they are safe here,” Kolomiiets said.

“My daughter said that she is finally not afraid to sleep, because in Ukraine when you sleep [you’re often woken by] sirens and you have to go to a shelter to hide from missiles.”

Kolomiiets, whose husband also stayed behind to defend their country from Russian invaders, considers herself lucky that she and her children were welcomed in Ottawa by relatives who have provided everything they need.

“Now I want to help people who have nothing,” she said.

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