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Flight with 230 Ukrainians touches down in Regina

The humanitarian flight, which began in Warsaw, included a famous survivor of the Vietnam War who lent her support

REGINA — A humanitarian flight bringing 230 Ukrainians to Saskatchewan has landed in Regina.

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner completed an almost nine-hour flight from Warsaw, Poland, landing at the Regina International Airport at 7:35 p.m. central time. 

Soon after, the passengers made their way off the plane, down the stairs and onto the rain-soaked tarmac. They then made their way to the terminal building, the beginning of what for them is a new life on Canadian soil, far from the situation in war-torn Ukraine.

The flight of Ukrainians to Saskatchewan was a major undertaking. It was organized by the humanitarian organizations Open Arms and Solidaire, working to help Ukrainian people flee from the ongoing Russian invasion of their country. It was Solidaire and its founder Enrique Pineyro who provided the aircraft, with Pineyro piloting the Boeing 787 for the trip.

Saskatchewan officials had been working with the organizations as well as the Ukraine Embassy to Canada to co-ordinate assistance and support for the mission. The province is also providing items including non-perishable food, sleeping bags, medical supplies and other in-demand cargo to be sent back on the return flight, to be distributed to Ukrainians.

The Regina airport had to deal with the logistics associated with the arrival of the 787 aircraft, which is rarely seen at Saskatchewan airports. The aircraft was so large that passengers had to deplane using a flight of stairs instead of through the normal passenger bays, which are built for smaller jets such as the 737.

The new arrivals were expected to spend upwards of three hours being processed through customs at the airport, before heading to temporary lodgings at the University of Regina campus. Of the 230 Ukrainian passengers on board, about 100 of them were children. 

The plane carried 600 bags of luggage, and included several dogs and cats, as well as one Chinchilla.

Among those on board the flight was a famous passenger: Kim Phuc Phan Thi, who is known worldwide as the “Napalm Girl.” She was the girl featured in the famous Associated Press photo from the Vietnam War, in which she was seen running naked in the streets after being burned by napalm — a photo that illustrated the horrors of war.

That photo was featured on the side of the 787 airplane as it landed in Regina. Kim Phuc is now a Canadian citizen living in Toronto, and had flown from Toronto to Warsaw to join the flight and lend her support to the Ukrainians en route to Regina. 

“Deep in my heart is really emotion of this trip,” she said. “Fifty years ago, I was a victim of war, and I survived …. I am so thankful for being a part of this trip to receive all the Ukrainian refugee people to Canada. And I am so thankful that Enrique (Pineyro) had that idea to put my picture in his airplane and bring the people to Canada.”

Her message to the Ukrainians on the flight was one that better days would be ahead. On board the plane, Kim Phuc said she met a little girl of nine years. That was significant to her because she was nine years old when she was burned in Vietnam.

She explained to the girl that at that time “it seemed like no hope, but you see now I have hope.”

Pineyro has now done a few humanitarian missions to fly Ukrainian passengers to new countries. He reports those passengers have had a “rainbow” of emotions.

He said that when he flew humanitarian flights out of Niger, with passengers leaving war-torn or troubled areas, “as soon as we lifted our gear, it was a party. The plane was a big party. They were singing, they were dancing.”

“With Ukrainian refugees, it’s quite the opposite because they are people that until four months ago, they had their homes, their lives and now everything is disrupted. Everything is lost. (The) composition of the passengers, it’s very rare to see. It’s women, it’s children, it’s old people and they’ve left behind their sons, their husbands, their fathers. 

“It’s a very tense atmosphere. And even when they get to their destination, their agony somehow is still on. It’s going to be better than sleeping in the Warsaw Central Station, but still, maybe they don’t speak the language, their labour skills are not validated. It’s very different and definitely sad.”

Those welcoming the Ukrainians to Regina hoped to provide as warm a welcome to Saskatchewan as possible. The Ukrainian arrivals will initially be staying at the University of Regina residences while they seek more permanent living arrangements and job placements. A settlement reception centre, with translators available, is being set up to help the Ukrainians on their arrival.

“Just to see those 230 people walking off the plane was an emotional day,” said Terry Dennis, MLA for Canora-Pelly.

“As a government, we’ve said that we are going to take as many Ukrainians as we can. We are moving them over to the U of R (University of Regina) and we have the team together that will help them out with finding their health cards, their banking and various things that will help them get settled. We look forward to helping them get settled into homes in areas and just being able to accept as many as we can get across into safety here.”

The hope expressed was to get the Ukrainians settled in more permanent lodgings within the next several days in Regina and various other communities.

“We know the city of Regina is welcoming and has pretty deep connection to Ukraine,” said Regina Mayor Sandra Masters at the news conference. “More than 10 per cent of our population is Ukrainian descent … We wish there wasn’t war, but if they’re going to be displaced, they will be welcome here. As a city, we are committed to being that welcoming host, to ensuring that we are working closely with the province, and with the organizations including the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, so that this becomes a little less painful, a little less uncertain, and we can work towards helping them make homes here.”

“This is a historic day for our province and for our city. Over 200 displaced Ukrainians have been brought to Saskatchewan to seek refuge from a cold-blooded brutal and evil attack on a peaceful nation,” said Elena Krueger, president of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress.

“Ukrainians around the world, across Canada and certainly from around Saskatchewan have stood up for Ukraine providing both humanitarian aid as well as support for displaced Ukrainians as we are seeing today right in our province.”

“We just wanted to come and pay tribute and congratulate all those who help make this a reality,” said Regina-Qu’Appelle MP Andrew Scheer. 

“I get phone calls in my office on a daily basis of people wanting to do more, wanting to know how they can help. It’s a great testament to the willingness of people in this province to lend a hand when it is needed.”