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Ukrainians fleeing war say there are barriers to starting new life in Canada

As of Oct. 14, more than 198,600 Ukrainians have come to Canada on a 3-year emergency visa program
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talk before a joint press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

The lunchtime chatter among a small group of employees in the crowded breakroom of a large corporate office in Markham, Ont., is increasingly edged with anxiety.

After fleeing the war in Ukraine last year, Stella Vitiuk and Nataliia Vabiak got a jobs as accountants at a business that hired a handful of Ukrainian newcomers.

As their colleagues talk about weekend plans, Vitiuk and Vabiak swap notes on their efforts to stay in Canada. Each day brings their emergency visas closer to expiry, with no end in sight to the war that brought them here.

“I am a strong person, but I feel stressed,” said Vitiuk. “It’s painful for everybody.”

She made the difficult decision to leave her husband and parents and bring her two daughters to Canada in the summer of 2022 and said she wants to stay for her kids’ sake.

“I want to give them something new, something good.”

As of Oct. 14, more than 198,600 Ukrainians have come to Canada on a three-year emergency visa program that allowed an unlimited number of people to flee the Russian invasion.

It is a one-of-a-kind program that allowed many Ukrainians to come to Canada quickly, but doesn’t offer the same long-term prospects and supports of a refugee program or a permanent immigration stream.

Many are women and children because men of fighting age are barred from leaving Ukraine while the country is under martial law.

Some of those people, like Vitiuk and Vabiak, feel that they are unlikely to qualify for permanent residency without a targeted immigration pathway.

Pathfinders for Ukraine is a Canadian organization that has helped Ukrainians navigate the immigration system since the war began. It surveyed 922 families in Canada who received an emergency visa and another 272 abroad.

The group found that 90 per cent of the people surveyed in Canada want to pursue permanent residency, but only a third of them feel confident they will be able to get it under existing programs.

Though the government is offering permanent resident status to those who have Canadian relatives, Randall Baran-Chong, the group’s founder, said very few people will qualify for that help.

“We found that it was only seven per cent of people,” Baran-Chong said.

With some visas set to expire in 18 months, he said the uncertainty is weighing on many people.

There are also practical concerns, including questions of whether employers or landlords will want to take on people whose permit is time-limited.

“They know that open work permit only has a bit longer, so why would they want to offer them a promotion or a better job or even hire them entirely?” he said.

Finding work was one of Vitiuk’s top concerns when she was choosing where to relocate to. She chose Canada in part because she speaks English and hoped that would help her get a job.

But her language skills don’t meet the bar for most economic immigration streams. Another barrier is cost.

“It’s a big difference when people are planning to immigrate to Canada. They prepare, they learn English before, they collect some money,” she said.

“I (didn’t) prepare, I don’t have a lot of money. I just took $5,000 and came with two children.”

Immigration Minister Marc Miller said of all the programs his department offers, emergency visas for Ukrainians fleeing war have been extraordinary both in volume and in the scope of protection they offer.

“But it was always intended to be temporary in nature,” he said in an interview on Nov. 6.

Miller said the government will remain flexible as the war continues, but there are diplomatic and geopolitical factors to consider.

“I think if I were in a position of a leader in Ukraine currently, that I would want to see some of their people back to help rebuild Ukraine,” he said.

“You wouldn’t want Canada to stand in the way by creating some unintended consequences.”

Still, Miller said he expects Canada will have to be mindful of individual circumstances as well.

“If someone is here and they have a kid … and they’re all Canadians for all intents and purposes, that’s a discussion we’re gonna have,” he said.

“It isn’t something that I’m ready to tackle in the near term.”

He acknowledged that leaves some people in a precarious position in the meantime, but said the government doesn’t plan to send anyone back to Ukraine while the war is ongoing.

Living with the uncertainty while supporting three teenagers alone is difficult, Vabiak said, and she finds it hard to find opportunities to improve her English.

She also fears her husband, who had to stay in Ukraine, may be called upon to fight at any moment.

“If he goes there I don’t know if he will be alive,” she said. “It’s really stressful.”

With no clarity about her future, she said she’s focused on the opportunities for her children in Canada.

“Sometimes you’re crying, sometimes you have to understand that you have to be so strong,” Vabiak said. “You don’t have a choice. I have children, I have to think about them. That’s why I’m here.”

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press

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