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How Ukrainian newcomers find their place in Alberta

Jun 22, 2023 | Immigration, Canada, Featured, Politics, News, Life, Community

Members of the committee Vegreville and Area Stands With Ukraine

Natalka Sydoruk
for NP-UN

More than a year ago the Russian Federation launched their full-scale invasion of Ukraine. This was a continuation of their eight-year unprovoked war against Ukraine. In 2014 Russia annexed the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and invaded the Donbas. On February 24, 2022, the Russians set out to occupy the whole country, which, as they believe, does not have the right to exist.

Since the late 19th century, Canada has become a safe heaven for many waves of Ukrainian immigration which came to this country to live their lives peacefully. They even named one of their first settlements in Alberta Myrnam (Peace for us). Today, Alberta once again opens to the seekers of peace and hope.

Ukrainians arriving in Alberta

The Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel (CUAET) was launched on March 17th, 2022, a month after Russia launched its full-scale invasion. Many people, who fled war zones in the East for the West of Ukraine, or the European Union were devastated and didn’t know what to do next. CUAET program became a great way to alleviate the pressure on European countries, particularly Poland.

More than 30,000 displaced Ukrainians have arrived in Alberta to date, most of them women and children or both parents with three children or more. The war is far from ending and the threat of a new Russian offensive remains. People in Ukraine still have to live under frequent missile and drone attacks. The state of the economy is another problem — most of the heavy industry and agricultural production is based in the east of the country. The Ukrainian GDP shrank by 29,1% in 2022. Many of the refugees have lost their jobs and businesses — and the ability to provide for their families.

Albertans have opened their hearts and homes to those in need. Many volunteered to help: offered rides, donated money and collected donations, looked for places to rent, taught English, and did many other wonderful things. Great initiatives were created like the Edmonton Hosts Ukrainians Facebook group, and the Alberta government helpline, which provides newcomers with useful information. A free store for Ukrainian newcomers works as a donation centre. Local Ukrainian community organizations also did their part at The Ukrainian Canadian Social Services. Ukrainian Canadian Congress Alberta Provincial Council and the Ukrainian National Federation, Edmonton Branch provided crucial information on how to settle (job search, registering kids to school, how to rent) and helped to inform the government about newcomers’ needs and worries.

Obstacles to adaptation

The first challenge for any immigrant is to find a place to stay — it is almost impossible to rent from outside of Canada without references or a Canadian credit rating. In addition, it is really easy to get scammed, especially for a person unfamiliar with Canadian regulations for real estate. That’s why hosting is important for people, who didn’t consider emigration before and were unprepared for the situation in a new country, to adapt. But not only are hosts important because they provide shelter — they also become friends and help to avoid many pitfalls.

The second big challenge is to find a job. Ukrainian newcomers usually have no personal connections in Canada. These can sometimes be decisive in getting a job. Other factors include job skills, experience, education, and knowledge of English. Finding a good job is hard for Canadians as well — some people find a good one in two weeks, and others struggle to find anything in months. Career fairs play a crucial role in the process of job hunting — because job seekers can present themselves to many different employers at once.

Some newcomers arrive in Alberta without any or just a minimal level of English. This barrier can be hard to overcome for many. Some agencies like Catholic Social Services offer an English language assessment to help refugees enroll in courses appropriate to their level.
Ukrainian newcomers may be too shy to talk at first, they are afraid to make mistakes or even to offend the other person. Anyone can help them to learn the language, you don’t have to be a teacher with decades of experience and a bunch of certificates to do that — just ask them how they are and engage in small talk. These little steps will make a big difference.

Vegreville’s case

Vegreville is a small town 100 kilometres east of Edmonton with a rich Ukrainian heritage. News about the full-scale invasion shocked the locals tremendously and they wanted to help alleviate the situation in any way they could. The Town initiated a committee of volunteers to assist newcomers with settlement in Vegreville and raise money for the people, who stayed in Ukraine, at one of its town hall meetings. Some volunteered right away.

The first order of affairs was to figure out what was needed and how to accomplish that. They singled out the basic needs of families upon arriving in Canada such as transportation, a place to stay, obtaining their SIN numbers and bank accounts, etc. These responsibilities were shared by 13 chairs and co-chairs: Jeanne and Jerry Maksymchuks (donation centre), Sheril Cymbalik and Curtis Zorniak (finance), Michel Henderson and Christine Sen (fundraising), Natalia Toroshenko (advocacy), Nicolle Calligan-Radcliffe (communications), Sandi Humeniuk, Jenifer Nawrot and Julie McLay (housing), Larissa Bombak (support), Cindy Baydala (volunteer power). Later Ray Charuk joined to support and Geri Litun Tuck substituted Maksymchuks at the donation centre.

Well-wishers from all around the Vegreville area took part in fundraising events like making varenyky for sale organized by Baba’s Best or lotteries, and sales of t-shirts. Local organizations and businesses donated money: Vegreville Cultural Society, Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, Lions Club, Webb’s Machinery, and the local ATB branch.

The whole process is highly organised — from greeting newcomers at the airport to decorating apartments. Application for SIN numbers is arranged specially for a group of Ukrainians. Events such as the Vegreville Pysanka Festival or simple parties and barbecues were no less important — because in this way it is easier to establish a connection with the community and feel more at home.

The compassion and kindness of Canadians is really heartwarming and empowering — they give hope that common sense and humanity shall prevail in this modern battle between dictatorships and democracies.

As one newcomer, Oleksandr Dhzyha put it:

“We have a dream to help other migrants arriving in Canada, and we are actively joining programs and initiatives, which are created to support their integration into Canadian society. We understand that help is especially important during the first few days in a new country and we wish to be a good example for others, showing that even small efforts and little help can bring big positive changes in people’s lives.”

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