Leaving everything behind: Ukrainian refugees overcome challenges as they make Calgary their temporary home

Calgarians are opening their doors to those fleeing the war in Ukraine

By Halen Kooper | May 17, 2022 |5:00 am

Yana Hvozdetska is starting to settle in with Jennifer Dobson and her family who welcomed the Ukrainian refugee into their McKenzie Towne home.

Photo: Submitted

As the war in Ukraine continues, Calgary is starting to see the arrival of Ukrainian nationals who are fleeing their country.

The quick arrival of Ukrainians has been facilitated by the Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel (CUAET), which launched in March and allows Ukrainians and their family members the opportunity to come to Canada as temporary residents for up to three years while providing them with free work or study visas.

Due to fleeing the war in Ukraine, most people arriving in Canada have little to nothing left to their name, which can make settling into a new home a challenge when also trying to learn the language. 

Luckily, there is no shortage of Calgarians and organizations opening their doors and doing what they can to help, including Jennifer Dobson, who wanted to play her part. 

Lending a helping hand 

After watching the news and seeing what was happening in Ukraine, Dobson says she reached out to St. Vladimir’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church to see if there was anything she could do.

“I reached out to the pastor there to see what I could do to help besides just watching the news and wanting to do something,” she says, adding she told him she had a room available. 

When she first reached out, the pastor told Dobson he’d have to get back to her after he learned more about what the government was saying the people needed and the requirements.

In addition to offering up a room in her home, Dobson says the church was also gathering donations of supplies Ukrainians might need when they arrive in Calgary.

“He did mention that they were doing welcome packages for people… maybe they don’t have hygiene items, sheets,” she says. “They’re completely starting over.”

More than just a room 

As a teacher, Dobson spearheaded something similar through her school and her community for people experiencing homelessness.

“I reached out to my principal and the community of Mckenzie Towne was amazing for it,” she says. “We did it for two weeks, and collected a lot of stuff and I was able to drop it off at the church.”

Dobson was inclined to help not only because of how strongly she felt for the Ukrainians going through this crisis but also because of the lessons she wants her children to learn.

“I looked at the news and it just made me cry, it made me feel helpless,” she says. “I teach my kids that you cannot change the world, but you can change the world for one person.”

It’s all about paying it forward 

Dobson says that even if you feel helpless, there are still small things people can do to help one another.

“You feel ‘you can’t do anything,’ but you can,” Dobson says, adding that the little things add up. 

“I want to show my kids so yes, we can’t help everyone in the world but you can help someone, and you can change their world.”

After a short time, St. Vladimir’s pastor got in touch with Dobson and went to take a look at the spare bedroom she had to offer.

“Afterwards he reached out to me that they had found a lady in Kyiv that was looking to come in,” Dobson adds. 

Leaving her entire life behind 

The woman Dobson was introduced to is 27-year-old Yana Hvozdetska, a temporary resident from Ukraine who worked as a lawyer’s assistant back home.

Hvozdetska decided to come to Canada because it would be safer here than in Kyiv, however, she had to leave her family and her boyfriend behind.

“It’s difficult because my boyfriend, my grandma, my dog — they all live in Ukraine now,” she says. “It’s so difficult because I’m afraid every day about him and about my relatives.”

Before the war began, Hvozdetska had always wanted to come to Canada or the United States.

“If I came to Canada in ordinary life, maybe I would be so glad to be here,” she says. “I dreamed of living in Canada or the USA, but now you read the news every day and you can’t be so happy because in your country there is war and many people are killed every day.”

Overcoming the challenges of coming to Canada 

Along with upending her entire life to come here for safety, there have been other challenges for Hvozdetska, such as finding work.

“The challenge I have for this time is to try to find a good job,” she says. “It’s a challenge because in Ukraine, I was a lawyer assistant and I wanted that but for now I have to find another job.”

When she first arrived, Hvozdetska looked for an administrative assistant job because it was similar to what she was doing back in Ukraine, however, her diploma doesn’t transfer to Canada. 

“It’s necessary for me to study because in Canada with my Ukrainian diploma, I can’t work,” she says. “In Ukraine, I was a lawyer’s assistant but now I’m unemployed.”

Learning the language 

Hvozdetska wants to improve her English. 

“In ordinary life in Ukraine I don’t use English,” she says. “I studied English only in the university and in school, and all that I know now and can speak is something that I learned, but in ordinary life, I don’t use English.”

Moving forward, Hvozdetska hopes to find a job and get herself more settled in by finding herself a place to live. She hopes to eventually bring her boyfriend to Canada as well.

“I have to find a job for the first time now and rent a flat to start,” she says. “I believe that my boyfriend can move here for some time and we can live here.”

Whether Hvozdetska decides to stay longer than the three years or to go back to Ukraine is still undecided but she hopes her time in Canada can help set her up for a better life.

“I will be here because even after the war is finished the economy of my country is not good,” she says. “I believe that I can start it here and then if all is finished I can return to my home.”

Halen Kooper

Halen Kooper is a contributor at Calgary Citizen.

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