Darek and Iwona Nakonieczny left Poland more than 30 years ago and built a new life together in St. John’s. Now they are back in the country of their birth, encouraging Ukrainian war refugees to relocate to the Rock.
The Nakoniecznys are part of a four-person team of officials from Newfoundland and Labrador who have hit the streets of Warsaw, armed with brochures and looking for Ukrainians who might be interested in moving to the province. They have been chatting up students, talking to people in restaurants and approaching refugees on sidewalks.
“We were married in Newfoundland and now we’re here hoping that some of our Ukrainian friends will follow the lead,” said Ms. Nakonieczny, an office administrator in the communications and marketing branch of the provincial government’s Executive Council. “It’s like a full cycle. We left and now we’re here to promote the province that has been home to us for the last 32 years.”
“It’s quite surreal, to be honest,” said Mr. Nakonieczny, who also works in the Executive Council and is from Medyka, a town on the Poland-Ukraine border that has become a key crossing point for Ukrainians fleeing the war. “But it’s very rewarding, I must say.”
The Canadian government has introduced a special visa program that will allow Ukrainian refugees to stay in the country for as long as three years. Newfoundland is the first Canadian jurisdiction to send officials to Poland to actively recruit refugees, but it’s far from alone.
Representatives from local governments across Europe have descended on Poland since the start of the war, offering a wide range of assistance packages. One council in the German state of Lower Saxony said it would provide housing, help finding work and a full year of financial support to dozens of families. Other governments are offering work visas and language lessons and opening places in schools for children. Some are paying local residents to take in Ukrainians, and just about every refugee shelter in Poland is lined with buses providing free transportation to cities in Spain, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, France, Italy and beyond.
While the offers to help have been largely motivated by humanitarian concerns, there’s little doubt that many governments also see an opportunity to recruit some of the highly skilled people who have fled the war and are now looking for a place to resettle.
Walk into any refugee shelter in Poland and it’s not hard to find doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs and architects, many fluent in more than one language.
For example, Myroslava Kravets ran 60 clothing stores before she fled Rivne in western Ukraine with her 11-year-old son. They ended up in a sprawling shelter in Warsaw and then took up an offer from officials in Barcelona. Architect Rozhena Aksamtovska designed luxury homes before fleeing Kyiv with her daughter for a shelter in Radymno, Poland. They have moved on to Berlin, where Ms. Aksamtovska will be given free housing while she looks for work in her field. And Anastasia Tikonova was in the midst of a doctorate in philosophy when she escaped Dnipro for Przemysl. She eventually caught a bus to Frankfurt, where she’ll have a chance to continue her studies.
The Newfoundland officials said they weren’t targeting any skills in particular, but the province needs health care workers and information technology specialists. And like its European counterparts, the provincial government is offering assistance with accommodations and employment. The team in Warsaw is even planning to help refugees write résumés and then match their skills with local employers.
“We’re sure that once Ukrainians start coming to Newfoundland and Labrador, the whole entire community will just embrace them, and they will be taken care of from the employment standpoint, medical standpoint and accommodation standpoint,” said Sonia Parker, a provincial immigration officer who was born in Poland.
Finding Ukrainian refugees interested in moving to Canada hasn’t been easy. The officials have been walking the streets of Warsaw since they arrived last week, but they hope to meet city representatives soon so they can start making pitches in shelters.
“There’s no game plan. I don’t think there’s a rulebook for this type of outreach,” said immigration officer Allison Day. “We’re looking at posters and visiting locations with larger numbers of Ukrainians where we can have a captive audience and spread the message that Newfoundland and Labrador is opening the doors.”
She said the first step for refugees is to apply for the special Canadian visa, which takes about two weeks to process.
Newfoundland has not been a traditional destination for Ukrainian immigrants – there are only about 1,400 people in the province with roots in Ukraine, while the diaspora across Canada numbers about 1.4 million. “It’s not a huge population as in other provinces in Canada,” Ms. Parker said. “However, we’re hoping to increase that. That’s for sure.”
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