A Christmas tree with gingerbread men hanging from its needles still stands in Olena Atamanchuk’s kitchen in her house north of Kelliher, even though it’s the end of January. The tree’s branches sneak into the frame of a window that looks west over fields of snow toward Warren Road — the same window that made her fret about the move from Ukraine almost two years ago.
“I realized I lived on the field, without (any) neighbours — no people,” she remembers thinking during her first days in Saskatchewan. Coming from Rivne, a city of 250,000 in western Ukraine, was a big change.
Yet, Olena says life isn’t so different now.
In Rivne, Atamanchuk and her family would have celebrated Christmas with relatives, avoiding meat in their meals and carolling for the neighbours after. They’ve kept many of the same traditions since trading city life for a town of 300, but here, their closest neighbours are a half-a-kilometer away and few of them speak Ukrainian — but some do.
Kelliher, like many parts of Saskatchewan, was partially settled by Ukrainian immigrants. Atamanchuk says she sees residual influence of this history in the local people and their customs.
The prairie province is different from home in many ways, but also vaguely familiar. A surprising number of people remember their ancestors’ language (though the degree of skills vary). Surrounding towns — Ituna, Foam Lake, Yorkton — all celebrate Ukrainian culture throughout the year, though the music is less electronic and the dancing more traditional.
These differences are a product of Soviet Union influence, Olena and her husband, Sascha, say. For nearly 70 years, starting in 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) cultivated its own institutions and culture. Olena was only six years old, and Sascha eight, when the composite state collapsed.
“Imagine,” Sascha says, “Sixteen countries were living together and in one moment, everything just — no, nothing.”
As adults, Olena and Sascha were still experiencing ripple effects, many economic, of the USSR’s dissolution. They faced another 30 years of mortgage payments on their apartment, and Olena’s parents had moved to Portugal for better work opportunities. Though both had higher-paying jobs, the couple’s income didn’t stretch as far as it should.
“It was enough — but only enough,” Olena says, her accent causing each vowel to drop heavily. Finding an opportunity to work outside of Ukraine sat in the back of Sascha’s mind.
Then, a friend who had moved from Ukraine to Yorkton introduced Olena’s husband to Kelliher farmer Bob Antoneshyn. The email correspondence between the two men started with a question in the fall of 2014: Sascha was working for a company that was developing the first pasture-based cattle operation in the Rivne region, and was curious how animals handled exposure to the elements on the prairies. Six months later, Sascha was considering a job offer at the Antoneshyn farm — but Olena and the couple’s sons weren’t about to stay behind in Ukraine.
It was a leap of faith the size of the Atlantic Ocean. Olena would have to leave her position as a purchasing manager of Eskada-M, a company that manufactured veneered board products. Her sons — Vlad and Vadym — would be separated from grandparents and friends. Sascha worried that he had only spoken to Antoneshyn through email and Skype: Did he have enough trust in this man to organize the work visas, plane tickets, medical exams, English tests and background checks needed to come to Canada?
The alternative wasn’t very attractive. Olena and Sascha could remember growing up in a failing economy, and although Sascha had avoided military service by attending post-secondary school, he and Olena were concerned about the country’s ongoing conflict.
Over the spring and summer of 2015, Antoneshyn, as a sponsor, and Sascha applied to the Saskatchewan Immigrant Nominee Program (SINP), which would allow Olena and the kids to come with Sascha’s successful submission.
“The SINP supports Saskatchewan’s economic growth by attracting internationally trained workers to meet ongoing labour market demand; and attracting entrepreneur immigrants to make business investments to help address business succession needs, increase job opportunities, and expand products and services,” said Deb Young in a statement from the Ministry of Economy.
In 2015, the Atamanchuks were one of 5,500 other successful applicants. Approximately 150 each year come from Ukraine each year, and in 2016, just 3.3 per cent, or 183 applicants intended to work on farm operations.
Within weeks of hearing of their acceptance, Olena, Sascha and their kids flew from Kraków, Poland to Frankfurt, Germany. From there, the family headed to Calgary, where they boarded a small plane to fly east over the prairies.
“I can remember only rivers and then yellow (fields) and roads. And that’s all. No trees,” recalls Olena. “Even in Egypt they have trees!”
The Atamanchuks arrived in Regina on Sept. 11, 2015.
Thinking back on her first days, Olena grins sheepishly. When her boys went to school and Sascha went to work, she was left alone to listen to the sounds of her new house. She locked the door, remembering movie scenes of wild bears — but only saw deer gnawing apples off a tree in the backyard.
Over the months, Olena has grown more comfortable. It became easier as she noticed similarities between her new home and Ukraine. While her family attended Christmas on Dec. 25, they also celebrated Orthodox Christmas and New Year’s on Jan. 7 and 14, respectively. English flows more freely, and now, her sons have surpassed her with their skills.
And, it appears, perogies taste the same regardless of location. Although, in Ukraine, they’re called varenyky.
*An earlier edition of this article said Olena's last job was in the grocery department of an Okko gas station. She had worked at Okko in the past, but only at Eskada-M immediately prior to their move to Canada.