The Harrowing Story of How Two Ukrainian Travel Advisors Escaped to Canada and Rebuilt Their Livesby Denise Caiazzo /
Having just marked the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine, this is a good time for some positive news. Here is the inspiring story of how a husband-and-wife team of travel advisors (and their family) not only survived, but thrived, through a series of incredibly challenging, and even unthinkable, events.
Meet Max and Viktoriia Shkurupii. They were living normal lives in Ukraine, running a travel agency in Kyiv and raising their children … until the war started. They were forced to escape the conflict and flee for their lives on a harrowing and long journey that took them to Poland, Portugal, Berlin, and finally to Victoria, in British Columbia, Canada.
It took many months of resourcefulness, pure determination, and zigging and zagging their way through an arduous travel process with no functioning embassies in their home country, and near-impossible travel paperwork and visas – and even traveling separately, first Viktoriia with their then 10-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter and two suitcases, and then later Max with their family dog Bruno and four more suitcases. Everything and everyone else they knew and loved had to be left behind, without turning back.
Once having arrived on Canadian soil on Nov. 2, 2022, Help Ukraine Vancouver Island assisted the family as they settled in. As did Cathy Scott, owner of Departures Travel, a member of Ensemble Travel Group, in Oak Bay and Sidney.
Here’s how it happened
Cathy was contacted by the couple several months prior as they began their passage out of Ukraine. Although she was not looking for additional agents for her business, the family’s story touched her heart. After meeting with them and learning about their travel agency business back in Ukraine, and what they had just endured, she offered them an encouraging opportunity by adding them to her team of travel advisors.
Thus the story began of how this family is now rebuilding their lives … and how being a travel agency owner in Ukraine is not so different than it is here in North America.
What has impressed Cathy the most about the Shkurupiis is “the incredible resiliency of this family. I can’t begin to imagine what it has been like for them, leaving all they knew, home, cars, business, friends, and family … and fleeing the country they love to save their lives and to protect their children. Max and Viktoriia are the same age  as my middle son. I can’t imagine him having to go through what they have. And yet they are so humble, grateful, and kind.”
She went on to say that “it has been fantastic” having Max and Viktoriia working with the team at Departures Travel. “They have brought a fresh new energy and enthusiasm into our office. The entire team has come together to support and welcome them. It has truly transformed our office.”
As for how Max and Viktoriia’s lives have changed, they say, “It has, of course, changed significantly since being forced to leave Ukraine last year and then finding a new home in Canada. But we are very fortunate that we were able to find a home, good schools for our children, and a wonderful job as travel advisors (which is what we did in Ukraine as part of a family business that was one of the oldest travel agencies in Ukraine, founded in 1996).”
Now part of Departures Travel, the Shkurupiis report: “We couldn’t be happier to have such a wonderful and generous boss, as well as co-workers who have become like family to us … We guarantee the highest standards of work ethics and will try to do our best and use all our knowledge and experience in order to maintain the leading positions of Departures Travel on Vancouver island.”
Max focuses on sales, with expertise in selling travel to Europe, and he loves planning trips that include four or five countries; Viktoriia concentrates on administration and accounting responsibilities.
“We are truly grateful to Cathy for bringing us into the agency and to everyone in our new community in Victoria who have welcomed our family with open arms. Our children are thriving and happy in their new schools and with their new friends – and that is everything to us as parents.”
Different and the same
Although there are many similarities in the way travel advisors in Ukraine and those in Canada conduct their daily business in the global travel marketplace, Cathy points out that there are some differences, at least in the case of the Shkurupiis.
“All of my team are incredibly hardworking and dedicated to our clients. Max and Viktoriia are the same in this. But the work/life balance is much more important to us as Canadians, and it is hard to keep them from working more than needed. Especially Max! He came to me after he had worked for me a short while and sat down at my desk and said, ‘Cathy, I know that work/life balance is important to you here in Canada. But I am Ukrainian, we work! I need to work!’ We have had many laughs about that as I chase him out the door at the end of the day.”
We at TMR thought it would be interesting to our readers to ask the Shkurupiis what they see as the biggest differences in selling travel in North America versus in Ukraine. They told us the main variance is that Ukrainians do not plan as far in advance as Canadians do – less than two months compared to six months or more in Canada. Most people also pay for their travel in cash or debit card in Ukraine, and very few people use credit cards or other forms of payment. In addition, there are not as many senior travelers in Ukraine as in Canada, largely the result of the pensions for seniors not being very good in Ukraine. And lastly, travel advisors do not charge service fees in Ukraine, and the margins are low (at only two to four percent).
How to help
Max and Victoria are shining examples to those of us who have never experienced the kind of disruption and tribulations in our lives that they have … and recovered in such a spectacular way.
We asked them what they want people to know about what was happening in Ukraine. And they told us: “It’s been incredibly difficult for both those who are still living in Ukraine, but also for the millions of refugees around the world. Many of them are living in places where they don’t speak or understand the language, which makes it even more difficult to get a meaningful job. We would, of course, encourage people to help in any way they can, either through organizations in their local communities to help those impacted by the war or the larger global organizations that are helping.”
Cathy has this insight to share with other travel agency owners (who may now be wondering how they can help), in relation to her experience: “If they [refugees from Ukraine] have agency experience and their English is good, hire them. It is one of the best decisions I have made for my business, and also personally. It was absolutely the right thing to do”
Despite all the tragedies and trials occurring in our world today, the story of the Shkurupiis reminds us that there are still good people out there who want to “do good” – and the human spirit is brilliant and grand when given a chance to shine through.