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St. Albert opens homes to Ukraine refugees

Hosts, drivers, translators needed
0204 UkraineHost 7942 km
REFUGE — Janet Bertsch holds the Ukrainian national flag in her Braeside home on March 30, 2022. She has prepared this room to host refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine. KEVIN MA/St. Albert Gazette

Chris Desain’s home in Akinsdale has some extra guests this week: a mother and her adult daughter, distant relatives and refugees from the war in Ukraine.

Desain said she visited Ukraine years ago and has distant relatives in a village there. When Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, she threw out an invite to anyone from that village who wished to come to Canada and stay with her.

“How could you not?” Desain said, when asked why.

“If it happened here to any of us, we’d want people to help us.”

Desain is one of a growing number of St. Albert volunteers supporting the millions of Ukrainians who have fled their homeland due to its ongoing war with Russia.

Some 4.2 million people have fled Ukraine since Feb. 24, 2022, many to adjacent nations such as Poland, the United Nations reports. Many of them are expected to move on to more distant nations such as Canada.

When and how many of these refugees will come to the Edmonton region is unclear, as there is no one group co-ordinating them, said Anastasia Khoma of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress’s Edmonton branch.

“We’re expecting around 2,000, but there’s no time frame for that.”

Preparing the ground

John Shalewa is president of Ukrainian Canadian Social Services of Edmonton, which is one of several groups attempting to find hosts for Ukrainian refugees in Canada. He said most of these refugees are women and children, as most men are required to stay in Ukraine for potential military service. Many will be coming to Canada with a suitcase’s worth of possessions on them.

“A lot of these kids will be traumatized by the war,” he said, and will need significant support to live here.

One issue his group has is simply getting refugees to Canada — the federal government is not offering transportation, so refugees have had to find their own way overseas.

"We're getting emails from people, they're asking us to pay for their flights," Shalewa said — something far beyond his group's capabilities.

"We don't know who's coming over and we don't know when."

Shalewa said his group is compiling a database of about 100 potential hosts in the Edmonton region.

Janet Bertsch is one such host. The college teacher opened up her Braeside home last month after hearing how the war in Ukraine had affected her students.

Bertsch, who runs the St. Albert Hosts Ukrainians Facebook page, said she and her husband previously hosted about 11 people during the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire. Now, they are waiting for a Ukrainian university student and a mother with two kids to arrive.

“We had to kind of rearrange our whole house,” she said — they cleaned out the den and the library, hauled out a spare bed, and bought three beds from Ikea.

Cheryl Dumont of St. Albert Further Education is working with local non-profits to co-ordinate support for Ukrainian refugees. Groups such as the St. Albert Food Bank and Salvation Army are lining up food and clothing, while her group is arranging drivers, interpreters, and English language courses. Also in the works are training courses for host families and psychological support for Ukrainian refugees at the St. Albert library.

Dumont said at least three refugee families from Ukraine had arrived in St. Albert as of last week, and she expects another hundred to arrive in the coming months. The Edmonton region is forecast to receive about a third of all Ukrainian refugees coming to Canada due to this area’s deep roots with that nation.

How to help

Shalewa said he has been telling hosts to be ready to provide refugees with food and shelter, with the aim to have them living on their own after six months. Most hosts he had spoken with are ready to offer much more, including jobs and daycare.

Bertsch said Albertans can support Ukrainians by donating to Ukrainian Canadian Social Services to help pay to fly refugees to Canada. Residents can also volunteer as drivers, mentors, and translators for St. Albert Further Education. The St. Albert Hosts Ukrainians Facebook page is tracking local donation drives and has many tips for families looking to become hosts.

Desain said her friends and family have stepped up with furniture, gift cards, and offers to drive her new guests. She has a spare bedroom and newly renovated bathroom ready for them, and is prepared to support them for as long as they need.

“They have said to me, ‘Don’t worry, you’re not going to be stuck with us,'” Desain said, but she believes they will need time to find a job and save up for their own place.

Visit ucc.ca for more on how to support refugees from Ukraine.


Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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