When Olga Schneider came to Canada from Ukraine in 2000, she never dreamed that the farm she moved to would one day become a haven for Ukrainian farm workers and families seeking shelter from a war.
“The first 23 years of my life were spent in Ukraine — but I am a Canadian now,” said Schneider, who was born Olga Maslova in Sumy, about 300 kilometres east of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.
“And my children very much feel for Ukraine, too. For their last birthday party, it was: ‘Mama, I want to have a Ukrainian cake. It has to be yellow and blue!’”
Schneider and her family — including husband, Kornel, and their four children — live on ‘Ferme Reveuse’, their very own 330 acres in the town of Curran, Ont., just 65 kilometres east of Ottawa. Kornel, a native of Switzerland, purchased the farm in 1993 to pursue his dream of producing low-input grass-fed milk that results in a superior product and healthier animals.
When still a bachelor, Kornel began taking trips overseas to do agricultural consulting with SOCODEVI, an international development non-profit that gave him the opportunity to help improve family farms and pastures in Ukraine.
Couple met in Ukraine
It was during one of those trips in 1999 that the couple met. While Olga didn’t have a farming background, she agreed to move to Canada to help manage the farm and raise a family.
“These days, Kornel actually has more contacts in Ukraine than I,” Olga said. “He’s been there several times over the past years. I haven’t been back in 15 years because our kids were so small that it was hard to travel.”
With 175 cows, 3,000 chickens, 950 laying hens and four children to raise, finding reliable employees is often a challenge for Kornel and Olga. That’s why the couple have often used their Ukrainian contacts to attract experienced workers hoping to gain farm experience and a better life in Canada.
That’s how Maryna Bromirska came into their lives.
Started welcoming Ukrainians before war
In 2020, Bromirska left her family in Bagrinivtsi (280 kilometres southwest of Kyiv, closer to the border with Moldova) to come work on Ferme Reveuse. From the start, she’s been an ideal employee.
“Maryna came here looking for a new and safe place to raise her children and give them a good childhood with lots of possibilities and stability,” Kornel said. “She has never missed a shift, and she does not live in luxury. She’s very hard-working lady and then some!”
Bromirska left her two children — daughter, Oleksandra (then 8) and son, Dima (then 5) — in the care of her mother and sister. In early February, she submitted the proper documents to have her children join her in Canada as soon as the school year finished in Ukraine.
And then, on Feb. 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered missiles and airstrikes to hit across Ukraine, and Bromirska and the Schneiders watched the news with fear and dread in their hearts.
“All the people we know (in Ukraine) are very afraid,” Kornel said. “It is unimaginable what our friends have to witness. It was very difficult on our morale; grinding on us because we feel helpless.”
Bromirska’s mother and children were able to flee Ukraine and find safety in Opole, Poland, a desitination nearly 1,000 kilometres from their home. While the news that her loved ones were out of harm’s way was some comfort, the long wait to get the necessary paperwork to retrieve her children from Eastern Europe was agonizing.
“It was quite a while, it took a few weeks,” Olga said. “And I remember how she was agitated, because some refugees began to arrive in Canada before her paperwork was approved, and she had applied before the war even started!”
Fundraising began immediately
The Schneiders leapt into action to help. They contacted their MP to see if the paperwork could be sped up. And they sent a call for donations to their customers and friends who received the Ferme Reveuse newsletter to raise funds so that Bromirska could travel to Poland and bring Dima and Oleksandra back to Canada.
Friends, clients and fellow farmers answered that call in droves, donating money to pay for Bromirska’s travel and tide over her mother and children as they waited in Poland.
“The donations really helped her,” Olga said. “Because of the travel and because her family had to stay in Poland. The Polish people who helped them are amazing, but you still have expenses.”
Finally, in late March, Bromirska received word that she could travel to Poland and bring her children back to Canada.
Children arrived in Canada in May
On May 16, they arrived in Curran, Ont., and shortly thereafter Dima was able to celebrate his 8th birthday on Canadian soil.
Still very much a member of Ferme Reveuse, Bromirska is continuing her work on the farm and her children will attend the same school as the Schneiders’ children in the fall. But the couple’s farm labour challenges are still affected by the ongoing war in Ukraine.
“Even a year before the war started, we were doing the paperwork to have two men come from Ukraine to work on the farm,” Olga explained. “Now, the borders are closed. They can’t get out, and one is signed up for military service to fight the war.”
Not to be deterred, the Schneiders are looking for Ukrainian women to help them run Ferme Reveuse, and have hired one 19-year-old Ukrainian woman, Nataliia Kotelianets, to help with barn chores, meal preparation and spring cleaning.
Above it all, the Schneiders’ spirit of generosity extends beyond their Ukrainian friends to the people of Russia themselves.
“This war is not Russia against Ukraine, but Putin against Ukraine,” Kornel said. “Olga and I have many friends from Russia, and they are our friends.”
“I know there is so much hatred towards Russian people,” said Olga. “But I do feel sorry for them. They will suffer from all this, too. And it just shouldn’t happen in the 21st century. It’s just wrong.”