After fleeing alone to Newfoundland, Ukrainian boy begins Grade 11 in 'second home'

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — In many ways, Serhii Semenets is like any other 17-year-old starting Grade 11 in Newfoundland this week. He likes playing guitar, he struggles with Shakespeare, and his ideal dinner is a plate of poutine.

But unlike most kids at Holy Heart of Mary High School, in St. John's, Semenets is 6,000 kilometres away from his family; he last saw his mother 16 months ago. Weeks after Russia began its attack on Ukraine last year, Semenets's mother hurried him onto a bus to Warsaw, Poland, just in time for him to board a plane to Newfoundland. He got on the plane by himself; his mother returned to the war.

"It was a little bit hard to say goodbye," Semenets said in a recent interview. "Because you're going to another country without your family and you don't know when you will come back."

Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. Shortly after, the Newfoundland and Labrador government announced it would open an office in Warsaw to help fleeing Ukrainians relocate to Canada’s easternmost province. Over the next nine months, the government chartered four flights to carry Ukrainians from Warsaw to St. John’s.

More than 2,400 Ukrainians have since settled in more than 30 communities, the province's Association for New Canadians has said. About 640 Ukrainian students are enrolled in kindergarten to Grade 12 schools across Newfoundland and Labrador this year, according to the provincial Immigration Department.

Semenets arrived on the first plane, on May 9, 2022, with about 165 other Ukrainians. He moved in with a woman he had not met before: Kelly Power, who used to work at a pharmacy with Semenets’s older sister. Shortly after Russia began its assault, Semenets’s sister asked Power if she would take in her little brother.

“I have no regrets. Not one regret,” Power said in a recent interview, her eyes filling up as she sat beside the teenager. Power said Semenets’s family recounted that shortly before his 17th birthday, officials from the Ukrainian army came looking for him, wanting to conscript him into the army the day he turned 18.

But he was already safe in St. John’s, living with Power and her 26-year-old son.

In the airport when he arrived in May, Semenets was shy and reserved, avoiding the journalists who gathered to report on the flight. But on a recent afternoon in downtown St. John's, he looked at least six inches taller, towering above Power in a black hoodie and with chin-length black hair. After a year of school and English tutoring, he spoke confidently, opening up about the ways the people in Newfoundland — like Power and his teachers — have made him feel welcome.

He gave a particularly enthusiastic review of Christmas in his "second home." Power showered him with gifts and made him a holiday meal of poutine and orange cheesecake — a nod to the importance of oranges in Ukrainian Christmas celebrations.

Power, he said, "has given me everything I need to be at home."

Semenets and Power are close. They have shared jokes, and they jostle each other affectionately when they talk about his messy room.

"He's like my second child now," Power said. "After my son graduated, I never thought I'd be back at parent-teacher meetings or getting ready for school and fighting to do homework. But we're doing it. We're rocking it."

In the middle of the interview, she stepped away to take a phone call. It was someone in Ottawa confirming that his passport application had arrived. She’s trying to send him to Italy in November for a visit with his mother.

Getting his passport in order — and his work permit, health card and other official paperwork — has been difficult, she said. Canada has welcomed Ukrainians and granted them temporary residency status and work permits, but Semenets's arrival as an unaccompanied minor has added bureaucratic delays.

He started Grade 10 last September in downtown St. John’s. There are about a dozen other Ukrainians at his school, and they support each other to navigate a new school in a new language, he said. Teachers have provided the students with tests and assignments translated into Ukrainian to help them out.

He was nervous when he started last year, but not this year, he said. His English is much better and he knows what to expect. He has a core group of five Ukrainian friends, and they like to go walking around the city.

"It's very beautiful nature here," Semenets said, adding that he especially likes hiking to the top of Signal Hill, which looks over downtown St. John's and out over the ocean.

He and his friends don't often talk about what they've been through, he said.

School is easier in Newfoundland than it is in Ukraine, Semenets said, explaining that there are fewer classes in Canada and therefore less homework. With more time on his hands in St. John’s, he got a part-time job at a grocery store.

He regularly video chats with his mother and father back home. They’re safe, "but it's hard to say 'safe' when you're living in Ukraine," he said.

His friends from Ukraine are now scattered across Europe, and due to the time differences, he wakes up at 5 a.m. to text and message them.

It likely won't be safe for Semenets to return home before he turns 18, he said. In the meantime, he wants to keep working and save money for when he finally can go back to Ukraine. He misses home, but he's happy in St. John's.

"I am not living a very hard life here, because Kelly makes it easy for me," Semenets said. "I'm living with a beautiful family who helped me with everything. I don't have a very hard life."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 6, 2023.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press