Ukrainians who’ve fled war and settled in Ottawa are opening up about their journeys, moving to Canada with their expedited visas in hand, and what it’s been like living here.
It’s been a year since Canada opened its doors to Ukrainians and their families fleeing their country after Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022.
The Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel (CUAET) program grants Ukrainians expedited, temporary visas to settle in Canada. The program was slated to end on March 31, but Immigration Minister Sean Fraser announced in March that it will be extended until July 15, 2023.
A long-awaited family reunion
Natasha Karpova and her husband both got their expedited visas within weeks of applying in September.
But the family, who lived in the Poltava region of central Ukraine, couldn’t immediately leave for Canada because their three kids were still waiting for their CUAET visas.
“We were waiting and waiting and waiting,” said Karpova.
In January, after four months of waiting, Karpova decided to come to Ottawa alone to prepare for their new lives and to start her job at a video production company, while her husband and kids stayed behind in France with a host family there.
“I was missing them badly,” she said. “Coming to the new country all alone, it was a bit scary.”
Karpova said she posted on a Facebook group asking for help, and quickly found her first accommodation with an Ottawa host family. She said they became like a second family that supported her, especially on the anniversary of the invasion this year when she was overwhelmed by the weight of the war back home.
“I just really had a very bad day and they were caring for me, you know, and I wasn’t alone,” she said. “I had some kind of a family here.”
At the end of February, the family finally got good news. Everyone, including their husky Jacie, had their paperwork and could finally reunite in Canada.
At the end of March, Karpova let CBC News come along with her to the Montreal airport to pick up her family.
“When I look back at this year that passed, it was a horrible year. It was a fantastic year as well,” Karpova said. “Sometimes I cry because I grieve, you know? Sometimes I cry because I’m grateful.”
Over the past weekend, Karpova’s family moved out of an Ottawa hotel to a rental unit they can finally settle into.
“A part of me doesn’t let my home go,” she said. “Sometimes I’m filled with hope and I think, OK, one day we can go home.”
But Karpova says she recently realized something more important after being apart from her husband and kids, and forming special bonds with their host families in France and Ottawa.
“Where is home?” she said. “Home is where my family is.”
Starting from nothing
Olga Men says she put her savings into purchasing a bigger apartment last February, so she and her daughter could live more comfortably.
On Feb. 23, 2022, the day before the Russian invasion, they moved in.
“I was very excited and happy,” Men recalled. “We moved new furniture to this apartment and finished at 10 p.m. And at 4 [a.m.] in the morning, we heard those explosions and we didn’t know what’s going on.”
Her new property would become “ash and hot stones” in the months that followed, she said.
Men lived in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, where much of the land has been reduced to craters and crumbling homes due to heavy shelling.
“During last year everything was destroyed,” said Men. “Literally … there is no place for me to come back [to].”
Men and her 10-year-old daughter arrived in Ottawa last August after what she describes as a months-long ordeal to obtain their CUAET visa, which involved travelling to Poland to be fingerprinted, all while working for the Red Cross.
When they finally arrived in Canada, Men and her daughter had just two pieces of luggage between them. They were starting from scratch.
For about a month, Men felt “disturbed” whenever she heard the sirens of emergency vehicles near her home in downtown Ottawa.
“Everything … was reminding me about some danger in the air,” she recalled.
Enrolling her daughter in school presented new challenges. Men learned COVID-19 vaccine requirements differed in Canada, and the school curriculum was years behind Ukraine. Nor did the new school provide hot meals like back home, so Men had to learn to pack lunches for her daughter.
Men also remembers sending out more than 50 resumés a day, and doing dozens of interviews a week online and in-person, only to be rejected for jobs for which she was qualified.
“It doesn’t matter how many degrees you have, what’s your working experience and years,” she said. “Every organization told me because of the absence of Canadian working experience, it is impossible to hire me.”
Men is now a settlement officer with Jewish Family Services in Ottawa, helping newcomers like her who just arrived with a CUAET visa in hand, teaching them everything from how to get a social insurance number to accessing food banks and walk-in clinics.
Men said she’s grateful that she and her daughter have remained healthy both physically and mentally over the past year, and for her host family’s support.
“I’m very glad that my daughter has an opportunity to go to school physically and not hide in some shelters,” she said.
She enjoys the little quirks about Ottawa that bring her joy, such as Canadian squirrels. A year later, though, Men said she’s still adjusting.
“Sometimes I can wake up and think that I’m still in Ukraine,” she said.
Her next goals are to rent their own apartment and get a car before next winter.
Men said one of the greatest challenges facing her and other newcomers is simply getting around the city. Like any true Ottawan, she’s felt the pain of waiting for a connecting OC Transpo bus during Ottawa’s bitter winter.
Finding love in Canada
Anna Fedorova and her two kids fled Kyiv on March 6 of last year.
“When I heard first boom, I realized that my kids don’t need [that] at all … so I decided to take them out of Ukraine,” she said.
After two months in Hungary, the family arrived in Canada. Fedorova said she wasn’t expecting to find love so soon.
“I felt like I need to settle, I need to find a job,” she said.
Instead, just nine days later, she went on a first date.
“Today, we are in a special place,” said Fedorova, sitting at a table at Chop Steakhouse, now one of her favourite spots in Ottawa, reminiscing about that date with her Canadian boyfriend. She said it was love at first sight.
“[He’s] my big love.”
Fedorova says she never dreamed of living abroad, but is pleasantly surprised with how it turned out.
“Of course it’s very sad reason why I’m here, but otherwise I [wouldn’t have] met my boyfriend. I have a conversation with him, ‘Can you imagine that we could never meet?'” she said.
“This person from other side of the world for now is the closest person to me.”
Fedorova is part of the team at Ottawa Ukrainian Mental Health, and is the manager of Maidan Market, a hub where Ukrainians can receive settlement services and support.
She plans on applying for permanent residency, while dreaming of the day she can show her partner around Ukraine.
Her next goal is to learn English well enough to provide life-coaching services in the language.
With tears welling in her eyes, Fedorova says she feels mixed emotions when looking back at the past year.
“Terrible things happened in my country,” she said. But the people she met in Canada, like her partner and her host family, give her much hope.
“I want to say thank you. Thank you to Canada, thank you to all Canadians that I met here,” she said. “It’s a wonderful thing how this war show us a lot … we see a lot of kindness and love.”