Nearly four months ago, Illia Kaminskyi and Mahmud Adilov received the rudest awakening imaginable, spurred out of bed by the sounds of air raid sirens and bomb blasts.
It was 5 a.m. on Feb. 24 and Russian forces began invading their hometown of Kharkiv, Ukraine. In the weeks leading up, they had heard rumblings of a conflict, but they were just as surprised as anyone when it arrived on their doorstep.
“We had some news that war is close and we hoped it was not true,” says Kaminskyi. “We lived, we’d go to school, nothing interesting. And then one day… we hear sirens and bombs.”
“We thought maybe it’s a military study, but it’s not, it’s war,” Adilov echoes of that fateful morning.
Almost three months to the day of that harrowing morning, Adilov, age 17, and Kaminskyi, age 16, landed at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. It was the boys’ very first time in Canada. The following day, they were picked up and brought to their new home for the foreseeable future: Sturgeon Falls.
Getting the pair over here safely and quickly took a massive group effort from their parents, friends and five West Nipissing families, including three members of the Family Health Team: Dr. Martin Desjardins, Dr. Maxime Boisvenue and Dr. Andrée Morrison.
“There’s a Facebook group basically looking to connect hosts to people who needed them,” says Desjardins. “My wife and I were looking to host somebody, and we ended up getting contacted by this person looking to find a place for the two teenagers. For our situation, we couldn’t host the teenagers, but fortunately my cousin was able to. It’s been quite the process; I think it started back in March and they only just got their Visas and flights maybe two weeks ago.”
For the first few days after Russia invaded, the Kaminskyis and Adilovs stayed inside, hiding. But indoors was no reprieve from the violence: Adilov’s home was damaged in the bombings, blowing out all their windows and forcing the family to flee to his grandmother’s house.
Once they determined they could no longer stay in Kharkiv, Adilov and his father tried to make the journey back to their house to gather clothes, but soldiers began shooting nearby, so they had to abandon that plan.
“We go to house – not my house – and stay in and wait. And we don’t go to my house, we run into my grandma’s house,” recounts Adilov.
Kaminskyi confirms that Russian soldiers are committing war crimes, indiscriminately targeting civilians since their arrival in Ukraine.
“Russia says it’s a special operation and they’re shooting at strategic objects and don’t touch civilians, but no. They’re in houses, shooting people,” he describes.
He’s lost some family members since the war began, a great aunt and a cousin. But currently his mother and sister are safe, staying in Ivano-Frankivsk, in Western Ukraine. Both Kaminskyi and Adilov’s fathers are in Kharkiv, fighting with the Ukrainian military. The age of conscription for the military is 18, a big reason their families wanted to get the boys out of the country, in case that age was lowered in the coming months. The boys are relieved to not have to fight, but say they’d have enlisted if they had to.
“We’d go, of course. It’s hard, but we’d go. We’d have no choice. What can we do? It’s home.”