Emergency personnel evacuate a person Jan. 15 from a building in an apartment block that was heavily damaged by a Russian missile strike in Dnipro, Ukraine. Catholic aid agencies in Canada have been working to help settle more than 130,000 Ukrainian nationals that have come to Canada in the last year. OSV News photo/Clodagh Kilcoyne, Reuters

Canadian groups unite to aid Ukrainian refugees

  • February 4, 2023

As war rages in Ukraine, Canadian settlement assistance groups have rallied their forces to help 132,000 Ukrainian nationals fleeing the violence. 

Now, with Russia’s bloody invasion of its neighbour nearing the first anniversary on Feb. 24, a new front is opening: the two-month deadline to extend a special visa permission program for the new arrivals.

Complicating that effort is uncertainty over how many of those who’ve come to Canada since the invasion will actually stay once the enemy is pushed off Ukrainian soil and peace leads to re-building the devastated country. 

Stephanie Medford, a team lead with Catholic Social Services in Edmonton, and Ihor Michalchyshyn, executive director and CEO of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, told The Catholic Register they’re hearing conflicting reports about the stay-or-go status of those they’ve helped accommodate to their new surroundings.

Medford said her agency and others she’s in touch with are finding many who’ve come plan to stay in Canada if they can. But Michalchyshyn said there are also indications others are already anxious to go home again.

“I’m hearing (about) people who have come but just couldn’t adjust and have already headed back to be with their friends and family in Ukraine,” he said. “On the other hand, there are a lot of people who already had an interest in coming to Canada because their friends and family are here, and there are a lot of questions of what their options will be.”

Key among those questions is how Ottawa will treat the temporary Canadian-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel (CUAET) that grants Ukrainians and their family members of any nationality permission to remain here for up to three years. The application deadline expires March 31, and so far the federal government is taking a fog of bureaucracy approach to whether or not it will be renewed.

“IRCC (Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada) is continuing to assess how our immigration programs can best support Ukrainian nationals now and in future, including new pathways to permanent residence,” department spokesman Michelle Carbert responded in an e-mail to The Register.

What is certain is that numerous settlement groups joined forces quickly after the war broke out last winter to deploy aid for those whose lives have been torn apart. Michalchyshyn, of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, said his organization found itself in unchartered waters helping more than 2,400 arrivals in Edmonton and Red Deer during 2022. To the rescue came a leader from a Catholic non-profit, former Calgary Catholic Immigration Society CEO Fariborz Birjandian, who stepped up to show the way.

“This was all new to us (but) they were the lead on the (resettling of) Syrian and Afghani refugees,” Michalchyshyn said. “They came and explained and gave us all the resources they had about how that process worked, and what the needs were that the people would expect.”

Meanwhile, it was announced that Catholic Social Services in Edmonton is collaborating with the Alberta Council of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, Ukrainian Canadian Social Services and the non-profit group Sleep in Heavenly Peace from nearby Strathcona County to build beds for families fleeing Ukraine.

“It started with the Ukrainian Canadian Congress,” said Stephanie Medford, of Catholic Social Services. “Since the war began, they have had a huge warehouse where they collect donated furniture, and Ukrainians can come there and pick it up. They found there was a huge need for beds, especially for kids.”

The collaboration works, she said, by Sleep in Heavenly Peace gathering all the supplies and having its volunteers build the beds. Ukrainian Canadian Social Services collects donations and funds the project. 

“Catholic Social Services provide(s) the clients. We check with clients for their level of need and we offer referrals,” Medford said.

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