A deadline looms for the program residents of Ukraine are using to enter Canada as they flee the country’s latest war – spurring a striking uptick in people needing help.
The special immigration program that allows those from Ukraine to live, work and study temporarily in Canada closes March 31.
That means a massive uptick in people with far fewer resources landing on our doorsteps, says Karmen McNamara, founder of the non-profit Help Ukraine Vancouver Island.
HUVI has helped nearly 1,000 Ukrainians create new lives for themselves on Vancouver Island in the last year.
In the fall and over Christmas, the agency aided an average 10 people a week, McNamara said. Now they’re seeing 40 – an all-time high as the anniversary of the Feb. 24, 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine approaches.
“It doesn’t sound like a lot but when it’s 40 people week after week after week … it can be a little overwhelming,” McNamara said.
“The other thing is the kinds of people who are arriving today are different than the kinds of people who were arriving 10 months ago. … We certainly have more people showing up with absolutely no plan, no food, nowhere to go.”
Unaccompanied minors are not unusual.
A series of food share programs in Saanich, Langford, Saanich Peninsula, Nanaimo, Cowichan Valley and one developed by another aid group in Comox are helping alleviate the high demand for groceries as the organization feeds 200 families a week.
“Since we started doing that our requests for emergency grocery cards went down dramatically,” McNamara said.
The first wave of people to arrive were better equipped for the move. They had friends and family in Canada with a plan and resources in place.
“Now that this deadline is looming there are two things happening. People are realizing if they are going to come they need to come now. They may not have a plan but they’re going to get on a plane before it’s too late,” McNamara said. “The people we’re seeing today, it’s the biggest group of people and it’s the most needy group of people.”
The people coming now have spent potential savings in last six months as food prices in Ukraine skyrocketed. They come needing everything, and with ticket prices also at a high, people are spending their last dollar to get out of the country.
Janna Fabrikova, who immigrated to Canada from Ukraine in 2016, serves on the board for both HUVI and the Ukrainian Cultural Society.
“All Ukrainians here, we feel we are leading two lives at the same time,” Fabrikova said. “Our heart and minds are in Ukraine. We watch the news and we are in touch with family and friends. We watch every detail in the news, while focusing on how we can help people here.”
She also manages Kiwanis Ukrainian Village – 13 transitional housing units key to the cause in a region where housing is in crisis mode. Families can stay at the eight-acre property in Victoria for three months at no charge while they seek other options.
“It was a call to do something. It was, as some people tell me, it was probably something similar to survivor complex or survivor’s guilt, when you feel there’s nothing you can do to change the situation over there, but there’s something you can do here to make a change.”
With vacancies at an all-time low and rents at an all-time high, a Ukrainian refugee without a Canadian credit rating faces yet another hurdle finding more permanent housing. Many newcomers are connected with hosts through Help Ukraine. The expectation is they will be self-sufficient within 90 days.
Fabrikova recently organized emergency housing for a family of five who had been staying at a hotel and were left with nowhere else to go. They hadn’t previously been alerted to the HUVI resources, Fabrikova said.
“I would say demand is higher than we can provide solutions for,” Fabrikova said. “That’s why we are asking for more hosts to come on board, and for people to volunteer. I know it’s not easy and not everyone is ready to share their house with a completely unknown person. Though we are trying … we do arrange virtual meetings for the families so that they don’t get something unexpected.”
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Residents looking to show solitary with Ukraine are invited to a candlelight vigil Feb. 24 at 6 p.m. behind the B.C. legislature (near the BC Search and Rescue Volunteer memorial) that marks the one-year anniversary of the invasion. Members of the Ukrainian Canadian community organizing the event ask attendees to bring battery-operated candles.
With her heart in the war zone, Fabrikova has advice for those speaking with newcomers.
“It makes no sense to us Ukrainians, ‘how are you doing?’ or ‘how is your family doing in Ukraine?’ By default, the answer cannot be good. Even if they are safe, that doesn’t mean they are good. I see many newcomers being traumatized by those questions. The best thing to say would be to say ‘I’m very sorry about what is happening in your country’, or ‘my thoughts and prayers are with you’. This is what is really helpful rather than asking about questions or details because it’s hard to talk about that.”
Visit ukrainehelpvi.ca for more on ways to help.
– With files from Samantha Duerksen.