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‘Cran-Ukrainians’ putting down roots in community

Almost two years after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Shelter For Ukrainians has helped many find safe haven in the area
A candlelight vigil in Rotary Park in Cranbrook on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023, marked the first full year since Russia invaded Ukraine. The vigil was held by the Shelter for Ukrainians Society, a non-profit that works to provide safe haven in Southeast B.C. for Ukrainian people fleeing the conflict in their country, and was, organizers said, in recognition of “ the people of Ukraine who have fought for freedom and who are still fighting for freedom. Almost one year later, the war is ongoing, and Shelter For Ukrainians have helped bring 91 people to the area. (Barry Coulter photo)

Almost two years ago, in February, 2022, Russia launched an attack on neighbouring Ukraine, bringing immense destruction, upheaval and turmoil to the Ukrainian people. This invasion has had far-reaching implications for the world beyond the borders of the Eastern European country — even the quiet little communities in Southeast B.C. have been affected.

Almost immediately in response to the invasion, a group in Cranbrook formed Shelter For Ukrainians, a society aiming to facilitate safe haven in Southeast B.C. for Ukrainian people fleeing the conflict in their country.

Almost two years later, the war in Ukraine is ongoing, and Shelter For Ukrainians has helped dozens of people and families cross the world to safety, security and new lives. More than 90 people have put down roots in the East Kootenay, and for some those roots are growing deep.

The society holds monthly gatherings where the families from Ukraine — the “Cran-Ukrainians,” as they’re calling themselves — along with society volunteers and directors, can gather, share experiences, meet new people, say farewell to those who are moving on, and reflect on all that’s happened and is happening.

“There is a lot of opportunity for families to connect with one another,” said Bonnie Spence-Vinge, of the society. “Most of these families have children, and everybody has jobs, so they don’t have a chance to see each other. This is a chance to speak Ukrainian, or Russian, whatever the case may be.

“[At the most recent vigil] we had a new family, who arrived early in December. A family of three. The father is an articulate English speaker, who wanted to introduce his family and speak about their trip, the welcome they got, and what their plans are.”

Shelter For Ukrainians has helped 91 people come to the area in the past two years. Most are currently living in Cranbrook, but others have moved to Creston, Kimberley, Radium and Invermere.

And some are moving on. Of those 91, one family has moved to the Lower Mainland for work opportunities, a man has moved to Alberta, and another family to the U.S. There is one family moving back to Ukraine. A mother with two children, her mother and an aunt are returning to Kyiv, where the extended family are still.

“They’ve been very successful here, working and enjoying their time, and are grateful for the opportunity to come here and live. The mother has her visa set up so that she can return.”

Some are figuring out what’s best for their family, Spence-Vinge said. “Some already have their roots pretty deep here. They’ve not going anywhere. They’ve made the decision, Cranbrook is their home, this is where they want to be.”

The people the society have helped bring to Canada have benefited from CUAET (Canadian Ukrainian Air Emergency Travel) a joint program the Canadian and Ukrainian governments put together. CUAET allows Ukrainians to come to Canada quickly, without having to go through the standard immigration processes, although there are criteria that must be met, both to leave Ukraine and to come to Canada.

However, the CUAET program is coming to an end at the end of March this year.

“If you have your paperwork in, you’re still eligible to come in under those terms, but after the end of March you have to come in through normal immigration channels,” Spence-Vinge said.

“And for the people who are here now, depending on the conditions of their visas, if they want to extend them or change the status of them, they have to apply through the standard channels. If they want to look at getting permanent resident status and becoming immigrants, they have to go through the standard immigration process.”

In the meantime, the Cran-Ukrainians are settling in the area, making a life here, and contributing to the community. And like the Ukrainian wave of immigration from early in the past century, they’ve also had an impact of the demographic of the community.

“I’ve been involved with refugee sponsorship for a long time, but it’s one family at a time typically,” Spence-Vinge said. “So the impact is different. It’s much broader. The families are working in the community, becoming neighbours; the children are going to school, making friends. They’ve engaged in a lot of community activities, they have sought out employment in a variety of settings here.

“Their impact and their ethic of wanting to be engaged, to give back, wanting to contribute, and not wanting hand-outs, not wanting to rest of their circumstance, wanting to dig in and get going, is pretty consistent with almost everybody.”

Whether they stay, whether they move on, they will have changed the community for the better.

“For the people whose lives they’ve touched, they’ve opened up people’s thinking, made them much more aware that we are far apart in distance, otherwise we are not far apart in anything else — our values, our beliefs, our attitudes, our commitments, our wishes, are very similar,” Spence-Vinge said.

“And for some people, when they see that this can happen in Ukraine, they wonder if this can happen anywhere. And how fortunate are we. I think some of us have reflected on that, but I hear that from the Ukrainians quite often. ‘You don’t understand how lucky you are, to live where you live.’”

The community has made them welcome, and has stepped up to support the society and the people it’s helping.

“We’ve been very fortunate in getting support from businesses, individuals, community organizations, the City of Cranbrook,” Spence-Vinge said. “We couldn’t do any of that without the support we’ve received from the community. People have been made to feel very welcome.”

And they are not coming here with much. For the most part, they’ve left everything they had in Ukraine.

“One family had a business, vehicles, they had just got a dog. They had to leave within hours [of the Russian invasion], with backpacks, nothing else. Where their home was was a lot of bombing of dams, and major flooding as a result. Their biggest anxiety was they had to get someone to take care of their dog.

“Now, the mother is in a management position of a business, the father is fully employed, the kids are in school. It’s amazing to me that people can do that in such a short period of time.”

The Shelter For Ukrainians society holds its monthly vigils, during the cold weather months, at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook on the first Sunday of every month, from 6 pm to 7:30 p.m. The church has offered its space for no cost. Everyone is welcome.

Barry Coulter

About the Author: Barry Coulter

Barry Coulter had been Editor of the Cranbrook Townsman since 1998.
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