July 26, 2023

The journey to UCalgary: One Ukrainian's incredible story of bravery and hope

How geoscience PhD student Yuliia Tkachenko left behind loved ones and a career in war-torn Kyiv to start a new life in Canada
Yuliia Tkachenko
Yuliia Tkachenko. Nadine Sander-Green, Faculty of Science

Walking through campus, you can pass hundreds of people a day. It’s easy to keep your head down and your thoughts inward. But look at the people you’re passing by — really look — and you’ll realize that every single person has a story to tell.

Yuliia Tkachenko is one student with a story; an incredible one at that. A PhD student in geoscience, she moved to Calgary from Ukraine this May after a harrowing experience in her war-torn country. She left her parents, friends, boyfriend and dog to start a life in Canada.

UCalgary faculty and staff supported Tkachenko in everything from expediting her visa to buying pillows and towels for her new apartment. She now works as a research assistant for the Tight Oil Consortium — which helps solve problems facing the energy industry in the arena of low permeability oil reservoirs — under the supervision of Dr. Chris Clarkson, PhD, and Dr. Per Pedersen, PhD.

This is the story of her journey to the university.

The phone call

Tkachenko knew the war had started when she received a phone call from her dad at five in the morning. It was Feb. 24, 2022. She was living alone in her apartment in Kyiv, and she didn’t want to pick up the phone. She knew exactly what he was going to say.

“When I finally decided to answer the phone, my father told me the war has started,” says Tkachenko.  “He said, 'Take everything, don’t switch on the light, and leave.'

“I was prepared. I was ready to leave in 15 minutes. I was crying. I was saying goodbye to my apartment. I really didn’t believe that I would be able to come back.” 

Tkachenko brought the most expensive items she owned in case she would have to bribe a soldier. In the parking lot of her apartment building, she remembers the streets being eerily quiet. No one was talking to each other. They were running to their cars with their belongings.

“It was 6 a.m. and Kyiv was full of traffic jams,” she recalls.

She drove to her parents’ house in the suburbs where many of her family and friends had gathered. Over the next few days, they slept in their jackets and shoes in case they had to flee. Soon, it was decided: she and her mother, boyfriend, dog and friends would leave to the west of Ukraine, where it was safer. Her father would stay in Kyiv.

“I was trying to convince my father to go with us, but he wanted to defend. And this is the most horrible part. I told him goodbye. I didn’t know if I would see him again.”

Work, donate and volunteer

The journey to the west of Ukraine normally takes eight hours. For Tkachenko and her family, it took 50 hours.

“The problem was, everyone in Ukraine decided to go to the west,” she says.

Tkachenko drove. She didn’t sleep for the entire journey.

Once she and her family finally made it, they were forced to find a new place to stay every few days. It was particularly hard to find accommodation that accepted men, owing to the mobilization order in the country. They finally found a cheap hotel in the mountains that was full of people fleeing from the most heated war zones. For the first month, Tkachenko and her family all stayed in one room.

Despite the hardship, Tkachenko wanted to volunteer to help defend her country. She found her niche in buying helmets and body armour to equip her father’s group of defenders.

“Recently, I received a message that my helmet saved a life. This guy experienced a direct shot. But he’s alive because of the helmet.”

While displaced and volunteering, Tkachenko still had to work. Nobody, on the other hand, was thinking about research and schooling. The PhD she had started was fading into the background.

“Life was simply work, donate and volunteer.”

She was a geologist for the biggest oil company in the country. Her remote work station was technical and expensive, but because of the tight living quarters the only place she could work was the lobby of the hotel.

“All the children in the hotel were trying to destroy it,” she says, laughing. “I had to stay near that workstation all the time.”

A call from Canada

After three months in the west, Tkachenko and her family travelled back to Kyiv. Tkachenko says it was excruciating to see the death and destruction the invaders left behind.

That’s when she received the email from the Canadian government: The Geological Survey of Canada had set up a partnership with her country. They were ready to help Ukranian scientists.

“I decided to apply, but I didn’t have much hope. We had many emails about possibilities of working in other parts of Ukraine or Europe, but when I saw Canada, I felt something inside of me. I really wanted to apply.” 

Still, her feelings about leaving Ukraine were mixed. Leaving felt like betrayal. She wanted to stay and help. Plus, she knew it would be easier to hear an explosion in real life than read about it on the news somewhere halfway around the world, helpless.

At the same time, she was starting to understand that she had been living under an incredible amount of stress. She was traumatized. She knew she needed to live in a more peaceful environment.

Soon, she had an interview with the Geological Survey of Canada, who offered to send her resume out to Canadian companies and universities. And soon after that, she had an offer from the University of Calgary to join the Tight Oil Consortium and start her PhD.

It takes a community

It truly took a community of hard-working people to help get Tkachenko to Canada. Diana Jamal-Samborski, an immigration adviser from International Student Services, worked tirelessly in co-ordinating Tkachenko’s immigration and study permits. Professors Clarkson and Pedersen, as well as staff from the Faculty of Science, International Student Services, Residence Services, the Faculty of Graduate Studies and the Graduate Science Centre all came together to make sure Tkachenko made it safely to Canada.

Many staff and faculty not only worked on paperwork and logistics, but also emailed Tkachenko to keep her spirits up. At the time, Kyiv was experiencing blackouts due to the invaders destroying critical infrastructure like electricity plants. Tkachenko would come home from work and climb 15 flights of stairs to her apartment in a pitch-black building. There was no light, no heat, no electricity and no way to cook or bathe.

“It took a very long time to get the visa, and I lost my hope that I could come to Canada, but they didn’t,” says Tkachenko. “When I finally got the visa, I was like, oh my god, this is really happening. I’m going to leave my parents, my boyfriend, my dog. I’m going to leave everything.”

A new home

In Calgary, Clarkson and a research associate picked Tkachenko up at the airport. They waited for her to get through customs for five hours and then drove her to her apartment, which UCalgary staff had stocked with everything from bedding to coat hangers to pots and pans. There were grocery cards so she could buy food. Staff even washed all the bedding and towels so Tkachenko could use them right away. Every touch was intentional. The university wanted her to know she had a home in Calgary.

Soon, she started her work as a research assistant for the Tight Oil Consortium. She also started working on a project with Shell for her PhD thesis where she evaluates the variability of rock properties to predict drilling performance.

Tkachenko misses Ukraine and her life there. Every time she sees that there’s an explosion close to where her family lives, she picks up the phone to call them and make sure they are safe. Despite the heaviness of home, she is truly happy to be in Canada. She has made friends, gone hiking and even volunteered at a dog shelter.

“It wasn’t until I came to Canada that I realized that I was living under so much pressure. I was always thinking about my life and about how to survive. But I had stopped noticing it. We always adapt to different situations,” she says.

“Here I feel this calmness, this relaxation. I am very happy. I notice flowers. I notice rabbits.”

When asked about her future, Tkachenko laughs and says she has “very strict plans.”

She’ll defend her PhD thesis in three to four years and then work in the energy industry in Canada. Eventually, she would like to bring that knowledge and expertise back to Ukraine.

“I talk to my former professors in the university all the time. I show them everything I see here and try to inspire and motivate them,” she says. “After the war, they’ll be so many possibilities to improve and rebuild, and I want to be part of that.”

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