After finishing his children’s bedtime routine, Brandon Ramey puts on his headphones, turns on his language-learning app and quietly struggles to repeat Russian words — or rather, sounds.
“It’s very difficult. So right now, we’re just focusing on learning the alphabet,” said Ramey, speaking from his home in St. Anthony, a small town on the tip of Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula.
Brandon Ramey and his wife Natania are preparing to welcome a Ukrainian family into their home: a woman, Diana Kucherenko, and her 3-year-old twin boys. They do not speak English, hence the language app. Russian became the dominant language in Ukraine during the era of the Soviet Union.
The couple connected with the family on Facebook, offering them a place to stay for as long as they needed. After connecting with Newfoundland and Labrador’s Ukrainian Family Support Desk in Poland, which was established weeks after February’s Russian invasion of Ukraine, they arranged a Facetime video session with a translator.
“We were showing her the room where she’d be staying and showing her the different things in the house she’d have access to, and she was just crying,” said Ramey.
“She was really thankful and emotional. She was having a hard time believing that she can just come across the ocean and we’ll put her up and she can stay with us.”
Days before she made the decision to flee to the neighbouring country of Moldova, Kucherenko’s former workplace was bombed and eight of her colleagues were killed. She wasn’t in the office when the bombing happened.
“She’s doing this for her boys and she just wants a bright future for her boys,” Ramey said.
Kucherenko’s husband, Nikolay, remains in Ukraine and is currently being trained in the military. Soon, he will start fighting on the front lines.
Breaking the language barrier
While bigger Canadian cities may be a more popular choice for Ukrainian refugees settling in Canada, the Rameys feel the rural setting of St. Anthony, with a population of 2,200, has just what this family needs: peace, quiet and nature.
There are no English as a second language classes in the region, but there are friendly people willing to help the family in other ways.
“I can see it now, her walking down the street to the park with her boys and someone stopping her to talk to her before she’s done her English learning. And I can see the conversation being a little bit difficult,” said Ramey.
Community members have already given monetary donations, clothing, household items and beds, and have even offered housing. Provincial Airlines has offered to donate flights for the family to fly to St. Anthony from St. John’s or Deer Lake.
“The Boys and Girls Club of St. Anthony said they’ll buy her a cellphone and buy the boys a tablet,” said Ramey.
For now, the family will live with Brandon, Natania and their two children, one-year-old Adelyn and four-year-old Camdyn, who is ready to share his toys and looks forward to a sort of permanent playdate with his new twin friends.
“I said, ‘How would you like to have two to little boys around your age come and stay here?’ … He’s really excited. We said, you know, they speak a different language, so I don’t know if he understands that completely, but I’m really excited to see them interact and see how they get over the language barrier.”
‘It really puts things into perspective for us’
Efforts to find homes for displaced Ukrainians have been playing out across Newfoundland and Labrador, like other places around the world.
Michael Holden, who started a Facebook group to link people with housing options with people who need a place to stay, believes Ukrainians can be a good fit in Newfoundland and Labrador, where the population has declined over the last three decades.
“We could easily absorb [5,000 to 10,000] and you know, put them everywhere,” Holden told CBC in a recent interview. “I can see lots of Ukrainians going all across the island portion of the province and Labrador and settling down.”
The Rameys hope the Kucherenko family will arrive next week. The journey has been delayed because of a spelling error in the travel visa. They also hope Nikolay, a marine mechanic, will ultimately join them and find work in the area.
While Brandon and Natania Ramey have busy lives with full-time jobs and young children, they’re ready for it to become even busier. They say the experience has already been fulfilling.
“She’s continuously saying how thankful and grateful she is … but something I’ve come to realize is that by her coming to stay with us and hearing her story, it really puts things into perspective for us,” Ramey said.
Since sharing his story on CBC Radio last week, Brandon Ramey has heard from others in the area who are interested in hosting Ukrainian families.
“It’s a great opportunity as a province for us to diversify our culture and welcome new people,” he said.
Ramey is hopeful that others will follow, and that they may see “a small Ukrainian population on the Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, which I think would be really special.”