Last year at the Parish of Grand Manan’s annual general meeting, parish treasurer Melanie Sonnenberg had more than church finances on her mind.
She was fretting about the attack on the city of Mariupol and the plight of the people of Ukraine. Mariupol is the hometown of her daughter-in-law, Tanya Psaras, who has lived on Grand Manan for eight years. But Tanya’s family was still there, caught up in the brutal invasion by Russian troops.
“They were under siege,” said Melanie. “I felt overcome to stand up.”
What Melanie said changed more than a few lives that day. She noted the parish had money it wasn’t using, and might they sponsor a family or two?
“I felt we had to do something for these people,” she said. “It was more God than me.”
While people were receptive, they weren’t entirely sure what to do next. Like all good Anglicans, they formed a committee, with 10 from each of the two Anglican churches as members.
SAFE HARBOUR COMMITTEE
Territorial archdeacon John Matheson joined them for the first meeting, where they named themselves the Safe Harbour Committee, and vowed to call the people who might arrive “newcomers,” not refugees.
Judy Stone from Ascension Church had been involved with newcomer resettlement in Toronto, and felt she might be able to offer some guidance.
“I was happy to tell them how to do this and what is involved, but I was not interested in meetings,” said Judy.
Nevertheless, she accepted the position of co-chair and was joined by Rosalie Wilcox of St. Paul’s.
When Rosalie heard Melanie’s plea at the meeting, “something just spoke to me. I felt compelled. It was a war and people were struggling. So I put my hand up thinking there must be something I can do,” she said.
The team got to work. They had parish money totalling $20,000, and an offer of a house for a newcomer family to use.
“So we had a house and $20,000,” said Judy. “Then we started to look for someone who would want to come to an isolated island in the Bay of Fundy.”
At the same time, Tanya was dealing with the devastation of her country and particularly her home town. For three frightening weeks, as thousands of people died in the relentless bombing, she lost touch with her family and friends.
“I will never be able to show my children where I grew up,” she said, adding the city is in ruins. “It’s just coordinates on a map now.”
Tanya was a surgeon in Mariupol before she met Melanie’s son, Peter, in Ukraine. After her marriage, she worked at the Saint John Regional Hospital as a pathologist’s assistant, but it meant maintaining two households. She is now deputy of flight operations at Atlantic Charters in Grand Manan, a company owned by Melanie.
A year ago, she was numb with shock and fear, but buoyed by the efforts of the parish.
“It meant a lot when the parish got together, but I wouldn’t even call it a project,” she said of the committee’s formation. “It was my life.”
She’s still emotional speaking about the war, but helping bring fellow Ukrainians to Canada has eased her burden.
“There were families we could help. I felt we could do something for people we could reach, rather than being swallowed up by grief,” she said. “It is putting prayers into action. An act of service can be a bigger part of change.”
Tanya was in a unique position to help: she had the language skills, and as she said, “I am the only full-time person here who knows both cultures.”
“Tanya worked every day to get the paperwork done,” said Melanie.
THE COMMITTEE GROWS
One of the most gratifying aspects of the Safe Harbour Committee is that it ceased being solely Anglican and instead became an island initiative.
“Others on the island started asking ‘what can we do?’” said Judy.
When the committee posted their plans on Facebook, they got $22,000 in donations. A teenager knit a blanket for a raffle. When donation receipts became an issue, the municipal government stepped in to take care of it. Donations of furniture, clothing, household items and even empty seasonal homes were offered.
“The island came together and made it happen,” said Nora Moses, parish warden from St. Paul’s.
LENA & SASHA’S ARRIVAL
As the committee continued its work, Tanya was contacted by Olena, her friend and colleague in Mariupol.
“She was my head nurse,” said Tanya of their time together at a hospital in Mariupol.
“Tanya sent me a message,” said Judy. “Her former colleague was living in the hospital basement with her three-year-old son. There was no electricity and no phones. They were living on melted snow.
“We sent a letter to the embassy in support of her with all our names on it, trying to make it look official.”
The committee endured two sleepless nights as Olena and her son, Kostya, made it out of Ukraine to Poland. Her husband, Sasha, was at sea on a Russian tanker, but managed to break his contract and find them in Poland. This little family would be the first of many to arrive in Grand Manan.
Dozens of people showed up at the airport to greet them. They flew in via an Atlantic Charters plane, having landed in Moncton on a Government of New Brunswick flight. The date was June 7, 2022, a mere three months after Melanie stood up in the annual meeting to suggest this exact scenario.
“When I saw her face, she was jumping and waving,” said Tanya of seeing Olena for the first time in seven years. “We all cried. It was an incredible experience to see them.”
The family moved into the basement of Glen and Vicky Foster’s home, where they found clothing, toys, gift certificates and more to welcome them. While they had their privacy downstairs, they all ate together each day, using translation apps to communicate.
When Glen decided the family needed a vehicle, he reached out to the fishery. Fishermen set aside a day’s catch with instructions that the revenue was to go to Glen.
“$16,000 later, Sasha had a car,” said Melanie.
From there, more and more families have arrived, and by last count in late March, there were 24 Ukrainian newcomers living on the island, including at least five children.
More islanders became hosts for incoming families, and again, they, and even those on the mainland, offered all a family could need to begin a new life — furniture, clothing, food and so on.
“Our project was just for that first family,” said Rosalie. “I can’t give enough kudos to everyone who stepped up. We’d just put it out there that we needed something and we’d get it.”
“We keep in touch, and if anyone needs anything, we are there,” said Nora. “We’re welcome in their houses and they’re welcome in ours.”
Some of the money raised has been earmarked for a specific purpose because of the trauma and PTSD associated with war.
“We’re setting aside money for counselling,” said Judy. “It’s not all roses. They are incredibly brave and resilient people.”
As the committee worked to get Olena and Sasha to the island, the federal government announced it would accept mariner certifications from Ukraine, good news for the island.
“I was working with Transport Canada,” said Melanie. “Everyone in government was writing the playbook as they went. The Saint John office was one of the first to run a mariner through the system.”
The result was that Sasha was offered a job immediately, chief engineer on the summer ferry to Grand Manan. By last fall he was named chief engineer on the year-round ferry.
Olena works at the supermarket, as do several of her fellow newcomers. Many others work for Cooke Aquaculture. The influx of newcomers has helped to alleviate the labour shortage on the island.
“The job offers were immediate,” said Tanya. “To any willing adult.”
The Safe Harbour Committee made a pledge to support Olena and Sasha for one year, but months ago the couple asked to be released from that pledge so that others could be helped.
In fact, all the families are now self-sufficient and all have remained on the island. The committee has pulled back to let them live their lives, occasionally holding events like barbecues to keep in touch. And each family knows help is only a phone call away.
“They’re now all on their own, all are working and living in fully furnished homes,” said Judy. “The Parish didn’t have to spend anywhere near the $20,000 they set aside. It’s far better to have the whole island involved, but if we hadn’t had that money, we couldn’t have started.”
Beyond the tangible goods a family would need, islanders also provided spiritual support in the form of an Orthodox service last year in one of the Anglican churches.
“We had a priest come from Saint John,” said Melanie. “We put on a lunch and the ACW helped serve.”
The priest was back for an Orthodox Easter service, but the newcomers had plans to worship with Anglicans this year as well.
“I’m taking them to an Easter service at St. Paul’s,” said Tanya, adding they asked to attend as a show of gratitude.
Grand Manan has a population of about 2,600. To say they have been impacted by opening their homes and their hearts to Ukrainians is an understatement.
“They’ve done just as much for us as we have for them,” said Nora. “Eyes have been opened. It’s brought community members closer. There was a lot of joy in pulling this together.”
Melanie believes the project was exactly what islanders needed, and just at the right time.
“It got us out of ourselves right after the pandemic,” she said. “But really, the giving was to us — the friendships, working together, realizing how much support there was. People shocked me with their generosity.”
Judy and Rosalie, each attending an Anglican church on the island, didn’t even know each other before this. Now they’re good friends.
Tanya has seen so much love in the place she now calls home and she knows her fellow Ukrainians see it too.
“To date, my biggest highlight is I have not heard even one say they wished they’d gone somewhere else in Canada,” she said.
“For me, Grand Manan — it’s the spirit, the connection, the glue. To see newcomers feel that in their first year is amazing.”
While Tanya would love to see the newcomers working in their professional fields, for now she’s happy to see them safe.
She is overwhelmed by the generosity of so many Islanders who gave without hesitation, but she’s afraid to name anyone for fear of leaving someone out. However, she cites her mother-in-law, Melanie, for a special reason.
“She shared my story in the parish when I couldn’t,” she said.
She also cited John Matheson, who officiated at their wedding, for his guidance and pastoral care of the family during such a difficult time.
Now that things have settled down on the island, committee members have had a chance to reflect on the past year.
“To me, the overall feeling of what we were able to accomplish is wonderful,” said Rosalie. “We thought we might get one family. To look now — 24 individuals rescued from a war-torn country. It’s a blessing! I’m so glad I put my hand up that day.”
A WORD FROM OLENA
“My name is Olena Marinina. I want to share my impressions of Grand Manan.
“The island has a very similar climate to my hometown, making me feel at home. What also was a pleasant surprise is how many people are willing to help strangers and share so many things.
“I felt like in a fairy tale and the warm Grand Manan welcome helped me to regain the ability to believe there is good in the world.
“Many residents of Grand Manan became my new family members and my good friends. All these facts allowed me not to miss our home so much and to survive all the pain that I experienced.
“Today, me and all my family members feel like a full-fledged unit of this island and want to benefit it the best we can! I can’t even imagine my life in another place now!”
1. Tanya Psaras and Peter Sonnenberg ready to meet the Marinina family at the Moncton airport in June 2022.
2. Dozens of people came out to greet the Marinina family as they arrived in June last year.
3. Sasha, Kostya and Olena as they disembark at the airport on Grand Manan.
4. Sasha, his coat embroidered with the words “chief engineer,” at work on the Grand Manan ferry.
All photos submitted