In desperate hopes of escaping the nightmares of a war-torn Ukraine, Oksana Valveska and her two daughters, 8 and 9, packed their lives into a suitcase in hopes of a fresh start — in Canada.
“It was very difficult; it was very dangerous,” Valveska said about her time in Ukraine during the war, before they were able to flee.
“We had to hide in shelters, every night and every day. Bombs, missiles falling just 500 metres from our home. Going to bed, you would never know if you were going to wake up,” Valveska says.
Valveska and her daughters packed up and left. A couple of long drives and three plane rides later, they made it to Canada.
“When I saw the coastline of Canada, the first thing that came to mind … was that we are home,” said Valveska.
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The family arrived in October 2022, and they’ve been in Durham Region ever since. Valveska said they were lucky compared with others, and were able to get their visas within two months.
Valveska said they had the perfect life in Ukraine — they lived in Odesa, a beautiful city, her daughters were cheerleading champions, and life was peaceful and happy. Now, she and her girls can’t imagine going back.
“They love it here, I love it here. I love the Canadian culture and the mentality. Everyone is so kind here, so hospitable and so welcoming,” said Valveska.
Valveska’s mother was able to come to Canada with her, but her father is still back home. And Valveska hasn’t seen her husband since last March.
“He was in the first line of soldiers, in the armed forces,” said Valveska.
She speaks of how much she misses him.
“When we have a chance to talk to each other, he tells me the only thing that keeps him warm and happy is that we are safe.”
As we approach the one-year anniversary of the war, government data indicates that more than 145,000 Ukrainian citizens and Ukrainian Canadians have arrived in Canada since the beginning of last year.
Valveska said each day, war conditions continue to worsen, blackouts and power outages continue to affect Ukrainians — and there is a continuous need to bring in more refugees.
According to a release from municipal leaders in the region, almost 2,000 individuals from 750 households have accessed emergency accommodations and services through the GTHA Ukraine Response partnership, a project launched on June 6, 2022.
Mayors and chairs from nine municipalities across the province, including Hamilton, Toronto, Markham, and Durham Region, are calling on the federal government to step up with funding for Ukrainian refugees and related costs.
“There is a bit of anger amongst the GTHA mayors and chairs,” said John Henry, chair for the Region of Durham.
“You invite people into the country and give them a minimal stay in a hotel, and the municipalities are responsible for picking up the difference.
”It’s a challenge, not something we plan for, or put into budget. We have to find the money at a time when everything is more expensive.”
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Municipalities said they commend the federal government for its support, especially with expedited visas, support for two weeks of hotel accommodations, and emergency financial assistance.
“While these temporary supports from the federal government are welcome, they are not sufficient,” reads the statement.
Henry adds that there’s no doubt that supports for the Ukrainian community need to continue, but the federal government needs to step up to the plate.
To date, the region has spent $2 million on supports for Ukraine, but is asking the government to front that cost, which was out of pocket for municipalities, and to assist with future costs, as the war continues and more Ukrainians seek refuge.
“We’ll be there to make sure the needs are met to do the best we can, but we have other challenges in the region to deal with,” said Henry. “This is something that should be dealt with and funded at the federal level.”
Durham Region has a strong Ukrainian community and support has also been provided by the local Ukrainian Canadian Congress branch. President Katryna Rhovska said their priority has been making sure they’re supporting newcomers into the region.
“Settlement workers … translators … all kinds of services, including Ukrainian volunteers to help with language barriers,” said Rhovska.
Valveska and her family were speechless with gratitude for the support they’ve gotten, and said they have no words for the kindness and the blessings they have experienced on their journey to Canada. While she said there’s a lot of uncertainty, she’s doing her best to stay positive.
“We are a bit lost, about the future,” said Valveska. ”We know not to make plans because the war in Ukraine showed that you can’t plan your life, because one day someone comes and takes everything away.
“I’m hoping that these supports that helped me so much continue, because I know there’s so many people who are just waiting to come to Canada.”