Oksana Tokmakova: Walking through barriers
by Winluck Wong
This article is part of PRUDE Inc.’s “Living Library” project, featuring Saint John’s newcomers and the diverse stories they bring to the city. It is funded by Immigration New Brunswick.
It takes a great deal of courage to start a new life in a new country – let alone doing so without knowing a single word of its languages. But this didn’t faze Oksana Tokmakova on her move to Canada. She’s committed to start learning on Day 1 of her arrival. For her, it was another challenge to take in stride along her life’s throughline of grit and determination.
Trained to be strong
At four years old, Oksana developed osteoblastoma on her leg and had to go through surgery. It wouldn’t be the only operation.
Each time she would recover for two or three years before the tumour would come back again. When she was 14, there was one more surgery option left that involved a bone graft.
It left her bedridden for a year. The doctors all told her then that she most likely would not be able to walk ever again or even have children.
That wasn’t acceptable to Oksana. “Yes, I can,” she told them. “I can do it.”
She kept pushing herself to heal and to get out of that hospital bed. Somehow, she made a full recovery.
And she proved them all wrong to this day. “I have three daughter[s],” she said. “I walk, I jump, I dance.”
She believes her strength comes from her father, to whom she’s always grateful for motivating her to stay active.
She grew up in Ukraine and remembered her father often taking the family to go fishing.
When they weren’t fishing, she would train in judo with her father – a black-belt practitioner. He would wake her up at 5:00 AM every morning to go running before judo exercises.
She enjoyed these one-on-one moments with her father before the rest of the family got up in the morning. He told her he was teaching judo only to her because none of her siblings had her strength or discipline. But she also had a feeling that he secretly hoped this training would help her heal one day.
And she believes it did. It’s why she continues practicing every day what her father taught her all these years later.
Trying everything all at once
As soon as Oksana recovered from that last surgery, she wasted no time. She ranked her childhood dreams to start planning out her future career path. “Number one: veterinarian,” she said. “Two: medical doctor. Three: police…detective. [Like] Sherlock Holmes.”
In the end, she really liked the idea of being her own Sherlock Holmes. She was all set to register for the police academy when her father put his foot down.
This was the first time she had a disagreement with him. Strong-willed as they both were, the fight dragged on. “Long time. Long time,” she said. “Maybe two years.”
Her father wouldn’t let her go because they couldn’t financially support her to live and study in another city. At one point, her grandmother even offered to support Oksana. But her father stood firm.
Besides finances, she also got the sense her father felt she had more potential in business.
She had always been quite the entrepreneur. She started her very first business at 12 years old. “[I] bought…bubble gum…in the small shop,” she said with a laugh. “And sold in another place. In bazaar.”
Finally breaking the impasse with her father, she went to the local college to learn a couple of trades first: metal-stamping and industrial sewing. These two trades didn’t help much in her job search afterward though.
The first job she found was as a driver delivering construction materials. Then she tried her hand as a hairstylist. And when she discovered that she was allergic to the hair product chemicals, she switched to work as a store security guard.
By this time, she had saved up enough money to move out on her own to a different city, Pavlohrad. Even so, perhaps out of respect for her father, she never did revisit her police academy dream. But she did like her security guard job enough to take more extensive training. She eventually became a security guard instructor herself for four years.
It was during her next career shift as a property manager and accountant that she decided it was about time to start a business again. Maybe even more than one. At the same time.
Taking inspiration from her first business, she bought dairy products from a small town and sold them at a large city. She also turned her hobby of cultivating flowers into a business. She then had a business selling women’s clothing and another selling holiday merchandise. She opened a sunglasses store as well, which she expanded to six more locations.
She started all these businesses with her own money. Without any investors or family help, it was a painstaking process. “Step by step, step by step,” she said. “Just collect and save money.”
Helping as many as she could
“It was a shock for all people,” Oksana said. “[I did] not believe that this can happen.”
Her city is not very far from the front lines of Donetsk. As a result, Pavlohrad was one of the first cities people displaced from their homes fled to.
Because she had already been volunteering to help refugees of the Russo-Ukrainian war since 2014, she immediately leapt into action when the war intensified.
She worked with other volunteers to build bomb shelters and she hosted entire families from Luhansk in her own home. She estimates she must have helped around 1,500 people during that time.
The only way she could cope was to fall into a routine. “Work, volunteer work, and family,” she said. “Life continues.”
It got to the point where she was so busy helping other people that she missed checking in with her own children. When one of her daughters had a panic attack, it hit her that she needed to think of her own family.
They couldn’t stay there anymore.
She and her husband had talked about one day moving to Canada a long time ago. But because they had just bought their current home, they didn’t have the money for the move.
So on March 2nd of 2022, they packed up for neighbouring Poland. They were in such a rush that they didn’t realize they’d forgotten to bring extra clothes for one of their daughters until they got there.
“I and my husband work[ed] every day, every night,” she said. All to save up as much money as possible to move again within a year.
Yet, through it all, she never stopped helping those in need back home. Before they left, she managed to organize two fundraiser concerts in Poland to support Ukrainian refugees.
At last, on March 2nd of 2023 – exactly one year after leaving their homeland – they boarded the plane bound for Canada.
New challenges, same determination
Oksana actually chose Saint John precisely because she found the city beautiful. She had been following a Ukrainian woman’s YouTube channel, which was filled with photos and details about living in Saint John.
The first thing they did when they arrived in Saint John on March 4th was attend a Ukrainian community event. There, she met Zhanna Slotvinska and they instantly became good friends. Zhanna – who was a volunteer with PRUDE Inc. back then and is now a Program Assistant – mentioned that PRUDE Inc. is a great place for newcomers to get started. Without hesitation, Oksana promised to be there the next day.
A giant snowstorm raged that morning. And befitting her character, she didn’t let it stop her. “I walked,” she said. “In storm, in the rain, in snowstorm. Four kilometres. I [am a] strong lady. Thanks [to] my father.”
A month later, her husband found a job with a construction company. Her daughters started school and are adjusting to their new surroundings.
As for Oksana, she enrolled in English classes as soon as she arrived. She also got into a business course at ConnexionWorks. Already, she is making plans to start a new business once she gets her permanent residence (PR) status.
“It’s my plan,” she said. “Sure [I] can do it.”