A small playground in Toronto has become a safe haven for a group of Ukrainian children and their mothers.
There is laughter and joy as the kids play on the slide and throw a ball. The outdoors seem to provide a place of comfort since their arrival in Canada.
“I love nature,” says Ivan, “the forest, the lake and the river.” The 17-year-old is one of nine children receiving cancer treatment at the Hospital for Sick Children. Many Ukrainian children arrived in late March, through a special evacuation program, with their mothers and siblings.
CTV National News met five of the families as they feel settled in Canada.
“I’m grateful to be here,” Invaka said through a translator. She arrived here with her three sons.
Her son Ruslan struggled to get cancer treatment when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began.
“It was a big fear,” she said. “They couldn’t anticipate what would happen.”
She said it brings her great joy to be in Canada, and that her boys can make new friends and learn a new language.
dr. Sarah Alexander, a pediatric oncologist who treats one of the Ukrainian patients, says the group is doing well and that all medical care is going as planned. But it is the community support and resilience of the families that have touched doctors the most.
“I think the highlight is twofold. One is the profound example of the resilience and ability to navigate complicated things in children and families,” said Dr. Alexander. “And the community in the hospital and out of hospital really gathered to support and I think that both things are great things to watch and be a part of.”
That community support is made possible by organizations such as the Ukrainian-Canadian Congress (Home – The Official Website of the Ukrainian-Canadian Congress (UCC)) and Megan’s Hug (Meagan’s HUG (meaganshug.com)), which focuses on raising awareness and fundraising for research into brain tumors in children .
Meagan’s Hug raised more than $90,000 to help the families and worked with other groups to provide housing, food and clothing.
“It warms my heart to see how the families have settled, to see that they have made special friends and that their mothers have united in a very lonely, difficult journey,” said Denise Bebenek, the founder of Meagan’s Hug.
Bebenek has spent time with the families since their arrival, through her own tragic experience of losing her daughter, Bebenek knows first hand how important community support is.
“I think the best medicine for these families is love and help and knowing they are not alone.”
The children certainly feel that support, and many speak positively about their time here so far.
Many are enrolled in school and enjoy going to class.
“I like the topics,” said Maria, whose brother is receiving cancer treatment. “I have friends at school.”
It is those new relationships that provide care, compassion and hope to these families. Ivan’s face lit up with excitement when he said that his math teacher speaks Ukrainian.
When asked about the staff at Sick Kids Hospital, he said, “they work very hard and are friendly.”
Most families say they plan to return to Ukraine, but for now they are focused on their children’s health and maintaining some sense of normalcy in Canada.