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‘It’s all new for us’: Ukrainian newcomers celebrate their first Canada Day

More than 160,000 Ukrainians who have come to Canada under emergency travel agreement
Three-year-old Nina Matriyiv holds a Canadian flag as she attends a citizenship ceremony where her parents and sister, from Ukraine, became citizens with 58 other new Canadians on Canada Day in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday July 1, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Tonya Barabash has a quintessentially Canadian plan for Saturday: she and her husband are making the most of the hot summer weather, taking their seven-year-old son swimming at a marina and going out for ice cream.

This is their first Canada Day since they fled their home in Odesa, Ukraine, the first time they will celebrate their new home with the rest of the country.

But with the war still raging on at home, it’s also a painful reminder of all they have had to give up.

Barabash and her family are among the more than 160,000 Ukrainians who have come to Canada under the Canada-Ukraine authorization for emergency travel — a special government program that grants travel, work and study permits — since President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Barabash was forced to leave her friends, her career and her community. Her life has changed dramatically. Despite this, she shares a sense of optimism and gratitude for the support and opportunities she has found in Ottawa.

She came to Canada in search of job opportunities and a strong education for her son.

With the support of an “amazing” host family, she has found a job, her son has found a school and the family has a home away from home.

“We are very happy to be here,” she said.

But being in Canada is still bittersweet.

On one hand, she loves the friendly-people and just about everything but the cold winter weather, but Barabash also yearns for her old life in Ukraine.

“I miss my previous life because I had (a) good job, many friends, good communication — but now we’re starting (a) new life,” said Barabash.

“So, it’s all new for us. It’s very, very hard because of the different culture, different languages, but we are trying.”

She’s found help in some unexpected places, including a nondescript section of Ottawa’s Westgate Shopping Centre.

Two Ukrainian women sit at a table in the front entrance of what is now known as the Maidan Market, handing out cookies and greeting visitors.

Down the hall in the kitchen, a map of Ukraine hangs on the wall with red and black pins indicating the hometown of every newcomer welcomed to the centre.

This place has helped Barabash and many more Ukrainians settle in the capital. She began volunteering at the Maidan Market to help others, knowing how much she appreciated the help she got when she first arrived. Soon after, she got a job as a customer care specialist.

Fellow newcomers Olha Stoicheva and Inna Yavorova gather at the market every week. It gives them a sense of community and help to navigate life away from home.

They, too, fled the war with their families, and will experience Canada Day celebrations for the first time this weekend.

The women say they are excited to learn more about Canadian traditions and culture as people across the country get together, sporting red and white, to celebrate.

At the same time, people continue to fight and die, for their independence and freedom everyday in Ukraine.

Stoicheva had to leave her son behind when she left home. He refuses to abandon his home country and he’s working to donate what he can to the Ukrainian army.

Since she arrived in Canada a year ago, they talk every day. But she said every night is a hard night.

Though she misses her son dearly, she said she felt she and her daughter needed to leave so that her grandchildren could live in a safe environment.

“It’s mentally hard, but overall, the situation is quite good. We have jobs. We get support. We are surrounded by really nice people,” Stoicheva said through a translator.

Stoicheva works as a dishwasher to support her family, which is how she plans to spend her first Canada Day.

“It’s Canada Day, and we are reconsidering and revisiting the idea of freedom and independence at these times, being here in a safe environment while there is war going on in our own country,” said Svitlana Maksiuta, a settlement manager with the Ukrainian Canadian Congress and a Ukrainian refugee.

Maksiuta, who fled to Canada when the war started, is leading the Maidan Market — a welcome hub for Ukrainian newcomers in Canada fleeing the war, operated by the Ukrainian Canadian Congress.

Maksiuta said the project helps Ukrainians integrate into Canadian society, while providing a space for newcomers to keep in touch with their culture and community.

For example, Yavorova is learning English with the help of a class at the welcome hub.

The support from the federal government’s special entry program, which allows Ukrainians to stay and work in Canada for up to three years, and from generous Canadians who are helping to house and support Ukrainian families, is making the transition less daunting.

Maksiuta said Canadians have welcomed the newcomers with open arms.

“It’s really hard, but it would be even harder without all the incredible support,” said Maksiuta.

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