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Starving for connections: newcomers to Alberta want to be part of the community

Jun 30, 2023 | Community, Immigration, Featured, Ukrainian World Congress, Life

L-R: Ihor Kruk, Wendy Lickacz, Orysia Boychuk, Jim Saunderson, Neil Koziak, Dr. Serge Cipko. Photo: Lidia Wasylyn

Lidia M. Wasylyn
for NP-UN

The Ukrainian newcomers to Edmonton “are starving for connections. All of them, youth, adults, children and especially seniors, are starving for connections.” Ukrainian Canadian Congress-Alberta Provincial Council (UCC-APC) President Orysia Boychuk emphasized that the seniors among the new arrivals are most vulnerable because they are not likely employed, isolated and have few, if any social connections.

Speaking at The Bishop Budka Charitable Society the 2023 Annual General Meeting, Boychuk delivered a detailed and informative keynote presentation on the current challenges facing both the UCC and the recent newcomers from Ukraine.

Society President Dr. Serge Cipko opened the AGM. After a short prayer asking for the intercession of Martyr Bishop Budka, the business portion of the meeting proceeded quickly. Dr. Cipko used the opportunity to draw attention to the Society’s achievements in the last year. Most projects funded by the Society supported needs arising out of the invasion of Ukraine, such as the Firefighter Aid to Ukraine or the needs of newcomers through St. Basil’s Aid for Ukrainian Newcomers organization, the “No Youth Left Behind” project of the Canadian Society of Ukrainians from the former Yugoslavia, and the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta.

The key note speaker for the evening Orysia Boychuk. Dr. Cipko introduced her stating, “Orysia is an example of the Bishop Budka Charitable Society Directors who are also active members and leaders of other community organizations.” He went on to say, “she has behind her almost a decade of experience as the leader of both the provincial council as well as the local Edmonton branch of the UCC. Orysia’s accomplishments include a twenty-year-plus career as a Senior Human Resource Manager with the federal and provincial governments. The title of her presentation is “Humanitarian Aid: Supporting Displace Ukrainians and Rebuilding Community.”

Boychuk recalled how the events of February 24, 2022, turned our lives and our community’s life upside down and there was an urgent need to find a path forward. Our community and what it does is not the same it was a year ago. For 50 years of its existence, the UCC has provided support for language, culture, education and advocacy for the needs of Ukrainians in Alberta. Suddenly, the UCC was facing new and urgent challenges. The statistics about the Ukrainians displaced are staggering.

The latest information as recounted by Boychuk shows there are eight million displaced Ukrainians around the world. There are eight million internally displaced people in Ukraine. About 1.2 million Ukrainians applied for the Canadian CUAET Visa and 700,000 have been approved. Of these, 170,000 have arrived in Canada and 36, 000 have chosen to make Alberta their home. The months of March and April 2023 saw the height of arrivals due to fears the CUAET program would be cancelled. During that time period about 1,500 persons were arriving every week. Another inflow of newcomers is expected in July and August of this year.

There is evidence of secondary migration withing Canada. Individuals who came to BC or Ontario and now moving to Alberta. Currently, the numbers show that 50% of Alberta arrivals go to Calgary, 30% go to Edmonton, 3% settle in Red Deer and the remainder are scattered around Alberta. About 197 communities province-wide have welcomed the Ukrainians, including Sherwood Park, St. Albert, Ft. McMurray, Vegreville, Medicine Hat, Lloydminster, Grande Prairie and others.

Boychuk reminded the crowd that the newcomers are not considered refugees. She briefly contrasted refugees to the CUAET Visa arrivals. The latter received a visitor’s visa with the right to work and go to school attached to it. Unlike refugees, the Ukrainian newcomers do not receive Permanent Resident status and are not offered a whole suite of services such as free language training, housing, financial aid for one year and the like. The Ukrainian newcomers receive no housing other than two weeks of emergency accommodations in a hotel. During this brief two-week period, they are expected to secure all the documentation they require such as a SIN card and a health care card, find housing, secure employment and learn English sufficiently to find work. Yes, the new arrivals received a one-time cash benefit of $3,000 per adult and $1,500 per child but they did not have access to any other programs or benefits. Anything further the new arrivals might need is solely on the backs of the community. In Boychuk’s opinion, the community has done well and has been generous, but she feels “it could be doing more.”

Boychuk shared that for UCC-APC the type and quantity of work it is engaged in has evolved dramatically in a very short time. They started fielding one hundred calls an hour, went from having one phone line to four lines, they went from one paid employee to nine volunteers. They partnered with Fire Fighters Aid to Ukraine to find a way to move aircraft around so that medial equipment and supplies could be delivered to Ukraine. A second aircraft was organized by former Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach and former Deputy Premier Thomas Lakaszuk with assistance from LOT the Polish Airline. Supplies were sent to Ukraine and people were brought back.

Within days the most pressing needs were recognized. These were food, housing, English language training and employment. These needs were addressed immediately and meeting these needs is a continuing challenge.

The UCC-APC set up a bilingual website to accommodate newcomers and those Albertans seeking information. A flurry of events started to take place. First came English language classes since the CUAET arrivals did not have access to language programs. These were both on-line and once a week in-person. So called English survival classes became extremely important. Without basic language skills it is very difficult to find employment. In Calgary, the St. Vladimir’s Evacuee Centre began organizing and running two intensive survival classes and Edmonton began filling the gap with evening and online classes to support the broader community. These classes continue to be offered both Calgary and in Edmonton.

Welcome events were held throughout Edmonton providing newcomers an opportunity to meet, share information about settlement and were hosted by St. Basil’s Parish, St. John’s Cathedral, the Ukrainian National Federation Edmonton (YHO) and the Ukrainian Youth Unity Complex (Дім Української Молоді).

Since employment was an urgent need, the UCC-APC supported job fairs, some online, others in person. The most recent job fair was in June 2023 and was attended by over 1,000 job seekers who met with 20-30 different employers. It is important that the newcomers obtain ‘survival jobs’ so that they do not fall through the cracks. This provides an income and Canadian work experience. This is also an opportunity to obtain various certifications such as safety courses that may be needed for future employment.

In cooperation with the Boilermakers Lodge in Edmonton, newcomers have been able to obtain basic furniture for their new homes. Boychuk expressed gratitude to the Boilermakers for provided access to 20,000 square feet of warehouse space since April 2022. The furniture warehouse operates four days a week and has helped about 4000 families in the last year. This translated to approximately $4 million dollars worth of donated furniture to help those in need.

Boychuk explained that the key role for the UCC-APC has been government relations, with all levels of government. There has been significant amount of advocacy work. There have been numerous meetings with provincial and federal government officials advocating for the basic needs of the newcomers and addressing current gaps in services affecting seniors, children and those with disabilities.

The UCC-APC became a financial disburser in this process, distributing grants for various settlement programs including summer camps for children, gift cards to ensure food security and providing some assistance to a hospital in partner City Ivano-Frankivsk by providing needed equipment. In addition, funding was provided to cover a breakfast program for those in the hotels upon arrival and supporting organizations in the community who provide support to newcomers.

For the foreseeable future, Boychuk noted that the role of the UCC-APC continues. Managing the gaps with food, housing, English language learning and employment are key, and the community will continue to respond as needs are identified. Matters that are not often thought of are situations when the newcomers are faced with accidents, illness, become victims of crime or pass away. In the last year, some families have faced these situations.
Boychuk referenced a recent random violent assault sustained by a newcomer waiting for the subway on his way to work. She noted there is no funding available for dealing with the passing of a person whose family is requesting that their remains be shipped back to Ukraine for burial. These are real needs of real people who do not have resources. Situations like these are managed through the generosity of others.

The UCC-APC will continue to support new communities of Ukrainians that are emerging in places like Jasper, Banff, Lloydminster or Medicine Hat. They need assistance with organizing themselves and the UCC will help where it can.

During a short Q & A period, Boychuk noted the biggest obstacle faced by the UCC, and the newcomers is food security upon arrival and accommodations. Both the federal and provincial governments have provided some financial support that has gone to food banks that support the newcomers. The priority now is English language learning and obtaining employments. The UCC tries to assist with accreditation processes, but these are very difficult.

The UCC would like to do more follow up with the newcomers and recently conducted a “pulse survey” however it was limited as currently there are insufficient human and financial resources to follow up, to find out if needs are being met. This something that will have to be done soon.
On the subject of the existing Ukrainian community absorbing newcomers, Boychuk stated the new arrivals are “starving for connections” and it would be up to our existing community organization and structures to reach out. She noted there are lots of opportunities for organizations to create safe spaces for the newcomers to connect with the hromada. As an example, organize seniors, 50+ groups that can gather for socialization and coffee. Some parishes have already organized coffee hours for young mothers and others have a young couples events twice a month.

Boychuk further noted that from information gathered so far, about 80% of the newcomers want to stay in Canada. The longer they stay, the less likely they are to return to Ukraine; the majority want to stay. Their goal is to get a Permanent Resident Status, but for this they must have the language skill.
A question arose concerning an unrelated matter that both the UCC-APC and Edmonton UCC are dealing with. The Edmonton Heritage Festival, one of the largest events in Edmonton’s festival season, is entertaining the request of a russian group to have a russian pavilion at the Festival for the first time this year. The position of the UCC- APC and Edmonton UCC is that this is not an appropriate pavilion to bring into the Festival this year. This group openly supports putin and the invasion of Ukraine, has promoted the hammer and sickle, and has displayed maps of Ukraine with a missile blowing up the country. There are members of the russian community in Edmonton who have supported Ukraine by attending our rallies and last year, but they chose to step away from the Festival. However, the group pushing for inclusion this year has not shown support for Ukraine. As of this writing, this issue remains unresolved.

Bishop Budka Charitable Society member Ihor Kruk presented a proposal for a new project for the Society. The aim of which is to provide contemporary practice work shadowing, mentoring and training experience in Alberta for Ukrainian anesthetists. The project would partner with the Alberta Ministry of Health, the College of Physicians and Surgeons, individual hospitals and the Rotary Club to identify Ukrainian anesthetists who have a functional ability in English and provide them with a “cascade training” professional development opportunity in Alberta. They would become versed in Canadian contemporary protocols, standards and practices in anesthesiology. This would be structured on the “train the trainer” model with the intention that these individuals would share their newly acquired knowledge and facilitate the training of others in their home communities. Further, it is hoped that the Canadian experience will encourage future virtual case study conferences to support ongoing training.

The projected cost for the program that would accommodate six practicing anesthetists for up to 31 days of training is $20,000. One half of this amount has already been approved by the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission to come from casino funds and the second half still needs to be fundraised.

Without a doubt, the highlight of the Bishop Budka Charitable Society AGM was the announcement of the winner of the Paul Harris Fellowship Award. This award is one of the highest honours Rotary can bestow upon a person. Recipients are Rotarians and community professionals, in recognition of their outstanding contributions, exemplifying the highest ideal in Rotary in placing “SERVICE ABOVE SELF.”

This honour accompanies a donation of $1,000 or more, in the recipient’s name, to Rotary International’s “Annual Program Fund,” which supports Rotary’s world-wide program. Edmonton Rotary Club Past President Jim Saunderson was thrilled to announce the recipient of this award is Orysia Boychuk for her exemplary work as president of the UCC-APC and the Ukrainian Community. The announcement was met with enthusiasm and gratitude for both the Rotary Club for their consistent support of Ukraine and the recipient Orysia Boychuk. Sanderson noted the strong ties between Edmonton’s Rotary and Ukraine, having recently completed a children’s playground near Kyiv and provided supplies to Poland to support displaced Ukrainians and now providing supplies deep into eastern Ukraine where the needs are great.

It was very fitting that the keynote presentation at this AGM dealt with dedicated volunteerism in our community that supports the needs of others and that an award for service by Rotary was announced here as well. The Bishop Budka Charitable Society was the perfect venue for both. Since 1982, Society has worked tirelessly and quietly providing support, hope and encouragement to distant communities in need. The Society’s motto “Promote, encourage and assist national and international aid and development” was showcased at the 2023 AGM.

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