Winters Can Be Harsh (+video)

Winters Can Be Harsh

Irina Zaiarniuk


A forcibly displaced young woman from Ukraine finds hope and comfort and trust in Canada. Her ice skates help her discover her way to actively move on through dark times. 


Canada teaches me to trust. Canada shows me that you can feel protected even during the worst snowstorm or the darkest days of your life. But how did I end up here?   

I was born and raised in Ukraine in a lower-than-middle-class family. When I was little and didn’t want to go to school, my grandma would cry, “But you must! We don’t have food for you at home. At least you will have your lunch at school.” As a teenager, I put my blood, sweat and tears into my homework, telling myself that it could help me get out of apartments full of violence and cockroaches. My home wasn’t a safe place.  

Long ago, when my parents were growing up, the Soviet Union’s government was trying to show the world the ideal country. Disabled people like my mom and dad were hidden in residential deaf schools with no chance for higher education or anything better.   

I had to become the first person in my family to go to university. And I did. With no support, I made money to pay my tuition fees myself while studying full-time. I craved connection with safe, supportive adults, so I found mentors among my professors. One of them gave me the book Educated by Tara Westover and said, “You should read this story about a young lady as strong as you. She fights her intergenerational trauma and goes to one of the best universities in the world. You should go abroad and try too.” And I did. At the age of 19, I won a full scholarship to visit Europe for an exchange, and finally, I was at a safe distance from my past.    

One week after I settled into the student dormitory, I woke up with my roommates saying, “Russia bombed Ukraine today at 5 am. It’s the start of a full-scale war.” I knew I was not an international student anymore: I was a refugee. I called my family and asked them to come to my safe place, but they decided not to. 

The war doesn’t cancel the traumas of your past. It only creates new ones. It doesn’t make people better. It just labels them all “refugees” so that others can understand their problems through this word. I went to the Immigration Police to ask for a temporary protection visa, but they said I was not eligible. You came before the war started. You can go back to Ukraine or give up your passport.    

So, I applied for a Canadian visa with tears in my eyes and flew across the ocean alone at the age of 20 with hope. I found a Canadian host family willing to give me a safe home in exchange for babysitting their kids. The first thing they taught me was that winters can be harsh, but that shouldn’t stop me. So, I bought skates and learned to navigate my life from scratch and how to balance on the ice. The worst thing war could take away is time. It can freeze someone for eternity. I could have stayed frozen at 19, but today I’m already 21. Nothing will stop me from applying for Master’s Programs at the world’s top universities or being hopeful. One day I will have my own kids as the best answer to the genocide of Ukrainians. The first thing I’ll teach them is that life can be hard, but there are some incredible people who can help and hide you under a blanket in their home during the worst snowstorm of your life. You must find skates of the right size with a sharp blade to balance on the ice.

Iryna Zaiarniuk is a young woman from Ukraine who was an exchange student in Europe when the war started on February 24, 2022. As a 20-year-old, she came alone to Canada and settled in Kingston, Ontario.

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