Comic illustrates refugee family’s bleak arrival in Vancouver and hope for the future

February 1, 2018

By Lori Culbert, Vancouver Sun |

It was pouring rain in Vancouver, that day in October 2012, when Natalia Mokhovikova and her two young daughters stepped off a Greyhound bus with empty stomachs, a few bucks in their rumpled pockets, and no idea where to go next.

The tourists from Russia had not planned to come to Vancouver. They spoke no English and knew no one here.

They had been on a cruise, partly to forget the persistent racial bullying and violence inflicted on the family with a Russian Jewish mother and an Afghani Muslim father. While docked in Quebec City, Mokhovikova phoned her terrified husband in St. Petersburg, who said bullets had just been fired into the bedroom where their girls, aged 10 and 12, usually slept.

“I knew I had to protect my daughters,” said Mokhovikova, who made a split-second decision that would change their lives forever.

She told the girls, Malena and Milana, to eat as much as they could at the ship’s buffet breakfast and put on multiple layers of clothes. They left the rest of their belongings in their room, not wanting to raise suspicions by taking suitcases off the boat.

“People were shooting at our windows, and if my sister and I were home we would have been dead. So my mom decided it’s better to just leave. And we got off the ship and we never looked back,” Malena Mokhovikova, now 17, said during an emotional interview.

Fearing police would arrest them for defecting, the trio ran to a Greyhound station where they used almost all their cash to buy tickets to the farthest away place the bus would take them: Vancouver. They had never heard of the city and didn’t even know how to pronounce its name.

When the frightened family arrived three days later, they had not eaten since the breakfast buffet. The city was full of signs they couldn’t read and languages they couldn’t understand. But it was also full of people and organizations willing to help the refugees, and now it is their beloved home.

“I asked for a lot of help in Russia because of my son and nobody helped me. But I came to Canada and maybe 100 people helped us in so many ways,” Natalia Mokhovikova said.

Today, the family members are permanent residents and their remarkable story is included in a unique series of comic strips about refugees in Vancouver, which were hung in various bus shelters throughout the city. The Mokhovikovas’ tale was displayed on Victoria Drive until earlier this month as part of the Comics in Transit project, created by the non-profit group Cloudscape.

Vancouver artist Anna Bron, who coincidentally is also Jewish and was born in Russia, was thrilled to create the Mokhovikovas’ comic, in part because it raises awareness of refugees coming from a variety of countries, not just the ones most frequently in headlines.

“I knew this side of Russia existed and must still exist, but it really did surprise me to the extent (of the violence),” said Bron.”They are very thankful to be here. And I don’t blame them, when you grow up in a country where you are suppressed.”

Although most of the comic is set in sombre colours, it ends in a brightly lit frame with Malena playing basketball and noting, “this is the first place where my family can live in peace.”

Natalia Mokhovikova grew up in Siberia, but went to university in St. Petersburg, where she met her husband who came from Kabul. The couple ran a successful jewelry business and tried to protect their children from racial bullying.

But shortly before the long-planned cruise, the girls’ older brother, Mamun, disappeared; police would not help, Mokhovikova said, and days later she found the university graduate languishing in a psychiatric centre with brain damage. The family believes it was a racial attack.

Worried about her son but also desperate to provide the girls with an escape, Mokhovikova continued with her plans to fly to New York and board the ship to Canada. She had assumed they’d return to Russia, until that fateful phone conversation in Quebec City.

When Mokhovikova and her daughters arrived in Vancouver, exhausted and starving, they walked five kilometres in the pouring rain to reach the Jewish Family Services in Kitsilano, where they were told they could get help.

“When they came in they looked like three drowned rats,” said Laura Stannard, who worked at the centre. “And they were wearing dress-up shoes.”

Although she didn’t speak Russian, Stannard eventually determined the family was seeking asylum, and she was able to get them an emergency room and a gift card for a grocery store.

Stannard continued to help, as did other organizations such as Kinbrace Refugee Housing and Support on Commercial Drive. “We tell our story in this comic because it is the best way to say to everybody: thank you,” a grateful Mokhovikova said.

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