As more than a million Ukrainians flee the Russian invasion of their home country, resettlement agencies and associations in Canada are organizing donations, assisting with visa applications and compiling lists of available housing while they gear up for an influx of arrivals.
There are about 1.4 million people of Ukrainian descent living in Canada, one of the largest such populations outside of Ukraine. The community has decades of experience with resettling newcomers, and it has well-established networks for doing so. Agencies say they are being inundated with calls from people wanting to help.
“People are worried about their family and friends, and they are willing to bring, sponsor and help them somehow get out of the war zone” said Iryna Matsiuk, the Saskatoon-based co-chair of the Ukraine Crisis Response Committee, part of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress Saskatchewan Provincial Council.
Already, the Ukrainian Canadian Congress – locally and nationally – has received offers of temporary and permanent housing for those expected to arrive. People have volunteered to buy groceries, donate clothing and furniture, become sponsors for refugees and provide immigration, interpretation and legal services for free, Ms. Matsiuk said. In Saskatoon, businesses in the farming and meat-packing sectors have reached out with offers of employment.
Canada took steps this week to streamline the immigration process for those fleeing Ukraine, though it still requires Ukrainians to obtain visas before entering the country. Advocates want to see further steps to both speed up the process and eliminate administrative hurdles.
“For us, how we feel on the ground here … and as someone who also has family in Ukraine, I feel like it’s not happening soon enough. We need to do a little bit more and a little bit faster,” Ms. Matsiuk said. “It is extremely stressful for our families to sit in bomb shelters in Ukraine or in temporary refugee shelters in Poland for weeks and months waiting to be reunited with us in Canada.”
The scale of the departures is staggering. One million people have fled Ukraine in just seven days, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said Thursday. It expects millions more will be forced to leave unless the conflict comes to an immediate end.
“No country can handle those types of numbers in such a short time,” said Michael Bociurkiw, a Canadian global affairs analyst who is currently in Lviv, Ukraine. “What that tells me is that wealthier countries, like Canada, are going to have to create – today, not tomorrow and the day after – migrant resettlement programs, at least temporarily, for them to come to Canada.”
He has been flooded with questions from Ukrainians about how to gain admission to Canada. He said there is currently little assistance with the process for those still in Ukraine until they cross the border. Canada should ramp up its presence at crossing points, with clearly identified Canadian consular staff on hand, he added.
In Toronto, staff at the Canadian Ukrainian Immigrant Aid Society (CUIAS) have been fielding an extraordinary number of calls and questions while preparing for arrivals.
Many of CUIAS’s staff and clients have been staying up late, tracking the news and staying in touch with family and friends, consumed with worry for their loved ones still in Ukraine. The agency is hiring more staff, and adding mental-health supports for workers and clients.
“The last week has been very difficult, filled with shock and grief,” said Ludmila Kolesnichenko, executive director at CUIAS Immigrant Services, which offers government-funded English classes and settlement services and has operated for more than 45 years.
“The calls began coming in immediately,” she said. “Our agency has been inundated with phone calls, e-mails, social-media inquiries from clients, anxious about bringing their family members to Canada.”
CUIAS has been running group information sessions by videoconference, and it has started a support group for students in its English classes. “It’s been very difficult for them to concentrate on studying every morning,” Ms. Kolesnichenko said. “They would come in, and they have barely slept the night before.”
In Manitoba, the Ukrainian Canadian Congress is already getting inquires from people interested in hosting refugee families in their spare rooms. “And that’s from the general community, not just from the Ukrainian-Canadian community,” said Ostap Skrypnyk, a Winnipeg-based board member of the Canada-Ukraine Foundation.
Canada should have a target of taking in a million or more refugees fleeing Ukraine, said Lloyd Axworthy, chair of the World Refugee and Migration Council and a former Canadian foreign-affairs minister.
“We should be using our diplomatic, political reach to try to get a kind of a co-operative co-ordinating effort internationally,” similar to how countries worked together to accept Vietnamese refugees in the 1980s, he added.