'A light of hope': first of three flights bringing Ukrainians lands in Winnipeg

Kseniia Zinenko stepped outside of the Winnipeg airport Monday evening after a nine-hour flight from Poland to Manitoba's capital city.

The 30-year-old is one of more than 300 Ukrainian nationals who were on a federally chartered flight to bring people fleeing Russia's invasion of Ukraine to Canada.

"Very tired," Zinenko replied when asked how she was feeling after arriving in Winnipeg. "But the Canadian people (are) very good to meet us."

Zinenko travelled with eight other relatives including her mother, sister and son. She says her father and brother had to stay behind in Mykolaiv, a city in southern Ukraine, to fight in the army.

The family wanted to get as far away from Russia as possible and didn't want to stay in Europe so they chose to move to Canada, said Zinenko.

"It's hard but we haven't any choice," she said.

The flight from Warsaw to Winnipeg, which touched down at the Winnipeg James Armstrong Richardson International Airport around 3:45 p.m., was the first of three charter flights to Canadian cities.

Immigration Minister Sean Fraser has said the flights will bring approximately 900 Ukrainians approved for emergency travel into Canada.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland joined Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson in welcoming the Ukrainian nationals on Monday. Manitoba members of parliament Dan Vandal, Jim Carr and Kevin Lamoureux were also hand to greet them.

Freeland and Stefanson boarded the plane after it landed and were met with cheers and applause from the people on board.

Freeland gave her greetings in Ukrainian over the plane's intercom system, while Stefanson thanked those on board for choosing Manitoba and Canada as their "home away from home."

"We want you to know we welcome you with open arms and open hearts ... we'll do everything to make your stay a welcome stay," she said.

Newcomers had another chance to speak with the two leaders as they departed the plane and picked up their luggage.

At one point Freeland hugged one emotional woman before she posed for a photo with the woman's family.

"This has been a very emotional and moving day," Freeland later told reporters.

"They're here to take shelter but what they're really waiting for is for Ukraine to win the war."

Dogs, cats and even a hamster joined their owners in the more than 7,000-kilometre flight.

Onlookers and relatives cheered and applauded the newcomers as they made their way into the airport.

Anastasiia Seleznova was waiting patiently with a bouquet of flowers for her cousin, who she helped register to come to Canada. She says her cousin was put on a waitlist and they were only notified three days prior she would be on the flight.

"We believed that it (would) happen so we just hoped that things (would) work for us and it happened," said Seleznova.

"In these difficult times and when it's dark around you, you're just trying to keep at least a light of hope."

This wasn't the first time Seleznova helped a family member escape. She met her nine-year-old sister in Poland in the middle of March to bring her to Winnipeg to stay with her.

The second charter flight will leave for Montreal from Poland on May 29 and the third, bound for Halifax, will take off on June 2.

Canada's government has already welcomed thousands of Ukrainians since Russian forces first attacked in late February.

Manitoba has said new arrivals will be taken to the province's Ukrainian Refugee Reception Centre to receive help with settlement after they arrive.

About three hours after arriving, Zinenko boarded a bus that took her and her family to the provincial reception centre.

Thoughts of home were already in her mind.

"We want (to go back) but we don't know when war (will) stop. Now we stay here ... and live. What will be in the future we don't know."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 23, 2022.

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