My travelling companions and I met little Lev on the platform of an old train station in Coimbra, Portugal, in early November 2022. He had rosy cheeks and a little snowsuit and little woolen hat and I think he had big brown eyes – I’m not sure because they were closed pretty much the whole two hours that we knew him. Lev was only three months old and was fast asleep in his stroller – completely oblivious to the trajectory of his young life.
Our train from Coimbra to Lisbon had been delayed – and delayed again and then cancelled - so we were camped out in the cramped waiting room of the train station. A station attendant, in broken English, told us that a replacement train would leave at noon, and we would use the same assigned train car and seats, so not a problem. We just had to wait.
So, we were lounging, reading, organizing our trip pictures, and drinking coffee. A nice young 20-something year old lady approached us and asked if we could help her. She was pushing a stroller which, we would later learn, contained little Lev.
Now, we consider ourselves pretty savvy travellers – keep your belongings near, be nice but don’t get too close to people, don’t offer any personal information, and be wary of scams.
So, when she approached us with a stroller, our guard went up just a bit. But, in perfect English with an eastern European accent, she simply asked for our help to decipher the train schedule. She explained that she had never ridden this train before and did not know enough Portuguese to read the schedule. We said we didn’t know Portuguese, either, but had confirmed that the train was cancelled and would be replaced by one at noon, and she would use the same ticket, the same train car, and her same assigned seat. She laughed that the Portuguese are never on time. She was well-put-together, so to speak, and looked just like any young mom anywhere who has mastered multi-tasking with a new baby, a stroller, a diaper bag, a phone, and a cup of coffee.
We confirmed which station she wanted in Lisbon, and she said that she was going to Lisbon to get her paperwork sorted. She offered that she was Ukrainian and had to get her personal documents so that she could apply for entrance into Canada. Canada! She explained that she had become pregnant, but Russia invaded Ukraine, and her husband had to go to the war effort. She said he was doing “something important” but wanted to go on the front lines, and she has told him in no way is he going to do that. When they realized the war was going to continue with no end in sight, they decided that she would leave Ukraine as a refugee so she could give birth to the baby elsewhere and then apply for entrance into Canada. Their reasoning was that, even if this war ended, why would they want to raise their son in an environment that was always on high alert and with the risk that he might actually have to fight in a war when he was older? (Note that the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has already been going on for years, probably her entire life, so she is well aware.) She would get settled in Canada, and her husband would follow when he was able. Of course, I, being somewhat suspicious, quickly did the math calculations and, yes, given the age of little Lev, the dates were accurate. She said her husband has not yet seen Lev in person but they use a cellular service to communicate, so he has seen him on the screen. I later read that by May of 2022, Portugal had accepted nearly 36,000 Ukrainians in a special program that streamlined paperwork and ensured that they were offered automatic access to health and social security. This also aligned with her story.
We told her she spoke perfect English. She said that she had education and training in computers. She knew exactly all the processes for entry into Canada. Just as we have come to learn about the Ukrainians, this five foot tall 20-something young woman was matter-of-fact and unflappable.
So, we waited for the train and she joked that although she was very thankful to the Portuguese for taking her in, their lack of concern for timetables really irked her. People should be on time. She was funny and smart. We wished her well and jokingly said maybe we would run into her in Canada some day. She ran down the platform, pushing little Lev in his stroller, to make sure they got on the right car.
We never learned her name and she never learned ours', but she told us her little son’s name was Lev. I searched the name ”Lev” – it means “lion” in Ukrainian – I am sure it was purposeful. It is just perfect for a little guy who was already growing up to be strong - and lion-hearted.
We spoke of her and little Lev often in our next couple of weeks in Lisbon, wondering about their progress.
The Government of Canada (Canada.ca, “Ukraine immigration measures: Key figures”) reported that by mid-December 2022, some 135,000 Ukrainians had arrived in Canada since January 2022, and a total of about 470,000 have been approved. I wonder if Lev’s mommy is on the list? I know there is always debate about how many, and which, refugees Canada should accept. From my brief encounter with this young lady and little Lev, I’d say she’s a good choice – smart, skilled, completely bilingual, and tough as nails. I suspect she would assimilate easily, with very little cost to our system, just as did the first documented Ukrainians arriving in Canada in the late 1800’s, followed by second and third waves after the first and second world wars, who all became an integral part of our economy and culture.
No, little Lev had no idea of the circumstances in which he entered this world, but I know it will be part of his own personal story forever and will then become family history.
So, if we fast forward some 25 years, I wonder what big Lev will be doing? I imagine he will be smart, well spoken, educated, flexible, and fearless. He might be a leader in engineering, sciences, arts, medicine, business, or the trades here in Canada. He might speak several languages. And I like to imagine that his little woolen hat will have been replaced with a real Canadian toque.
Let's hope he has had the chance to grow up never worrying about war.