Ros Lysychuk, all of eight years old but with the wary look of someone much older, wanted to know how he would find his classroom, in a new school, new city and new country that he’d arrived in less than a week earlier.
“It’s simple. Just look for the Ukrainian flags,” his father Artem Lysychuk reassured him.
Earlier this month, Ros walked into the Grade 3 class at Topsail Elementary School in Conception Bay South, N.L., and saw his new classmates waving tiny blue and yellow flags of his homeland. It was a welcoming gesture for a boy whose world has been upended by war. Back home in Kolomyia, Ukraine, several of his former classmates have been killed in the fighting. His father says he doesn’t know how to tell him.
Three months ago, the Lysychuk family – including his mother, Yana Lysychuk, sister Sophia, 5, and five-month-old brother Lukian – had to abandon their life in the small city of about 40,000 people in western Ukraine. Before the sun rose on the morning of Feb. 24, Russian missiles targeted Kolomyia’s airport, just a few kilometres away. The parents woke their children and told them they needed to leave – immediately.
“I said, ‘Darling, wake up, it’s the war.’ It was terrible. Words no parent should ever have to say,” Mr. Lysychuk said, in English.
Canada has one of the world’s largest populations of people with Ukrainian heritage, yet Newfoundland and Labrador has one of the smallest – with just around 1,400 people. But the province, with a small army of volunteers, is resettling hundreds of Ukrainians as part of a massive humanitarian effort to connect the newcomers with jobs, homes, furniture, dishes, clothes, bank accounts, health care access, social insurance numbers and food.
Two weeks ago, more than 160 Ukrainians, eight cats and three dogs arrived on a charter plane at the St. John’s airport, some bringing little more than a few suitcases per family. They’ve been granted temporary resident status here, which gives them the right to work for three years in Canada.
The province had to fund their access to some resettlement services since they’re not considered refugees – they had other countries they could have gone to – and are ineligible for some federal funding. Many say they’ve been moved by Newfoundlanders’ famous hospitality and hope they’ll eventually become permanent residents.
Dozens more have come as the Lysychuk family did – finding their own way to the province through the help of local churches, relatives and others. The Lysychuks came to Newfoundland thanks to Pastor Fred Penney of Elim Pentecostal Tabernacle church in St. John’s, after crossing the Romanian border on foot, then travelling to Italy as they waited for approval to come to Canada.
The pastor, who taught Mr. Lysychuk and his wife years ago when he was working in Lviv, reached out when the war broke out and offered to sponsor them. He paid for their flights to Canada, gave them free rein of his home, lent them his van and began fundraising efforts to get them a vehicle of their own.
“We would not be here if it weren’t for him,” said Ms. Lysychuk. “The most important thing for us is that our kids are safe now. We are very grateful for that.”
One of the first priorities is to find employment for the Ukrainians. A job fair was held last week in St. John’s, pairing them with employers looking to fill vacancies in health care, food and hospitality, construction, technology, transportation, science and professional services. English classes are already being held to help those Ukrainians who struggle with the language.
“We need jobs, that’s the first thing,” Tetiana Pavliuk, who arrived on the plane last week, said in near-perfect English. “If we have that, everything else we can fix.”
In her old life, in Kyiv, she was a marketer who worked for major agricultural companies and later ran her own event planning agency. Ms. Pavliuk, one of perhaps a few dozen of those who came on the plane who speak English, hopes eventually she can return to that kind of work, but right now she is looking for anything.
When the Russians started shelling the capital, Ms. Pavliuk and dozens of others sought refuge in an old Soviet-era bomb shelter under the city. She stayed for two days, until she saw the bloodied faces of people who had tried to go above ground to retrieve things from their apartments.
“I decided it was time to go,” she said.
Ms. Pavliuk, who now calls a room at a St. John’s Holiday Inn home, spent two months in Poland before her application to come to Canada was accepted. She knew little of Newfoundland before she arrived. After a few days of experiencing the province’s notoriously bad weather, she realized she’d need a better coat, and bought herself a rain jacket. And she says she misses Ukrainian bread – the floppy, sliced stuff she found in local grocery stores just doesn’t cut it.
But she’s optimistic there are opportunities in Canada for her, even if the future feels uncertain.
“I feel very welcome here,” she said.
Newfoundland, facing an aging and shrinking population, has seized on newcomers as the way to ease its demographic challenges. It’s welcomed waves of Afghan and Syrian refugees in the recent past, and those newcomers have helped diversify to the province’s work force and bring a new spirit of entrepreneurialism here.
“We’d be delighted if they want to stay,” said Megan Morris, executive director of the Association for New Canadians, a St. John’s-based agency that helps resettle refugees. “That’s why it’s critical we give them a good resettlement experience. I think employment and setting down roots is critical.”
Many Newfoundlanders have been very generous in their desire to help the Ukrainians, including opening their doors to offer temporary housing, she said. A drop-off centre is being opened to accommodate the many donations of household goods, toys and other large items.
“Many people have reached out, saying ‘I have a house, I have an apartment, I have a summer cabin, or I’m an empty nester with a couple of rooms in my home,’” Ms. Morris said. “We’ve had countless offers.”'
Although Mr. Lysychuk still starts his mornings by checking for updates on the war in Ukraine, with each passing day he’s more convinced his family has found its new home in Newfoundland. The weather may be lousy, he admits, but the people are very warm.
“I think this is the right place for Ukrainians,” he said.
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