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Escape from Crimea to Canada

A Ukrainian refugee shares his story of fleeing fear to navigate a fresh start in BC.

Yuriy Umansky 20 Jan 2023TheTyee.ca

Yuriy Umansky, a former journalist in Ukraine with a focus on politics, economics and social life, now lives in B.C.

Each of us has our own red line. That point at which you’ve reached the limits of patience, optimism and courage and can no longer convince yourself that everything will be fine, that everything will get better if you stay where you are and simply wait. Across the red line lies the decision to run. Across the red line lies a world of fresh uncertainties.

UKRAINE

Millions of Ukrainians reached their red line on Feb. 24 of last year, the day Russian President Vladimir Putin began his “military operation” in their nation. What pushed them over the line was the instinct of self-preservation. The logic of basic survival. In the next few days, throughout the regions of Ukraine bordering Russia, they left homes, parents, co-workers, friends, pets. As Russian tanks and infantry approached, they left bombarded cities, escaping to the western part of their country, some pushing farther to Poland, Moldova, Romania, some ending up in Slovakia, as did my brother and sister. At the railway stations of Kharkov, Kyiv, Chernigov and Sumy, thousands of people tried to get on west-bound trains.

There are many stories of parents, unable to gain entry to these jammed trains, giving their children to strangers aboard. The trains would pull away, transporting thousands of souls beyond their red lines. Their progress often would be interrupted abruptly as the train would brake to a stop, lights off, to wait for the end of the next air raid.

My red line came later. Months later, when, for me, it felt almost too late.

On the day of Putin’s military operation, I was living in Crimea. Eight years before, this peninsula, located in the south of Ukraine in the Black Sea, had been annexed by Russia, and placed under its control. Back then, at the start of the annexation, I was working in Crimea as a journalist. I tried to write accurately and objectively, but that became more and more difficult and dangerous to do. Some Crimean journalists began to co-operate with Russian media. Some moved to other areas of Ukraine for fear of persecution. Some, like me, were forced to leave journalism as a profession.

I switched to working in businesses away from the media or politics. Still, I would hear from Russian-backed authorities and former journalist colleagues now working for Russian media that I should not stick around. “You should go back to Ukraine,” they said. “You should return to your own.”

I ignored their advice. Eight years gives one time to adapt to the new order if one’s survival is not imminently at stake. Time to get used to an economy battered by sanctions and anti-sanctions, to a society isolated internationally, to living without Visa and MasterCard in your wallet, without reliable cellphone service, without Shell gas stations and so many goods, products and services that used to seem a natural part of life in Crimea. Eight years is long enough to forget even the taste of a McDonald's Big Mac.

Many people crowd a train station.
‘What pushed them over the line was the instinct of self-preservation.’ People push to try to board a train in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 4, 2022. Photo by Emilio Morenatti via the Associated Press.

On the morning of Feb. 24 last year, I was awakened by a DM from a friend. "The whole of Ukraine is being bombed." I closed my eyes. Opened them. The message was still there. That day, Russian security service in Crimea began carrying out arrests of journalists, bloggers, public opinion leaders. Anyone suspected of wartime sympathy with Ukraine could be detained and taken to the police or unknown places. Some were interrogated and released. Others were isolated for weeks. Everywhere in the air hung the smell of fear.

Not fear so much as FEAR. The FEAR felt living every minute knowing that armed enforcers might come for you. The FEAR that causes you to startle at the sound of a car driving past the house. Every five minutes you come to the peephole in the door and you are frightened to see the same black vehicle that took away your friends and former colleagues. It matters zero that you are guilty of nothing. There's an infamous statement attributed to Joseph Stalin's chief prosecutor Vyshinsky saying, basically: Provide me a man, and a law to convict him will be found.

And so in Crimea you now could be detained for a "wrong" repost on Twitter or a “wrong” like on Facebook that you made many years ago. And yet I had not yet reached my red line — the point of no return when you bolt into the unknown.

A map pinpointing Crimea and Kyiv.
After sending in troops, the Russian Federation annexed Crimea in 2014 and installed a pro-Russian government. Eight years later came Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ‘military operation’ into other parts of Ukraine. Map via Shutterstock.

After a few days, I did begin to begin to explore options for emigrating. By then the first shock had passed and the ability to think and analyze returned to my brain. In March, European countries began to open special programs to enable the entry of Ukrainian refugees. Which might I choose? I spoke English better than German or French, so at first I focused on moving to the U.K.

I applied to the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme, which brings Ukrainians and their family members to the U.K. for up to three years and helps them settle there — if they have a sponsor. I spent several months looking for a sponsor in the U.K. but came to realize one would be hard to find because I was a single adult male. The British aim first of all to help escaping Ukrainian women with children, which is reasonable.

In July came a break. I learned from Ukrainian friends about a visa opportunity in Canada. I immediately applied. Then began long months of waiting, coping with mounting fear each day I lingered in Crimea. I too optimistically pinned hopes to an early announcement by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada that it aimed to process most Ukrainian applications within 14 days. The usual wait has turned out to be three to four months.

FRANCE

I reached my red line on Sept. 21, 2022. That was the day Putin announced “a partial mobilization” in Russia. I and thousands of men living in the Russian-controlled territories faced a choice — be absorbed into the Russian army or flee. I chose the second. But financial realities kept me pinned for a time. The sudden surge of men avoiding conscription drove the cost of travel tickets far beyond what I could afford. I bought a cheaper one for late in October and held on. The day came, and I slipped free, travelling from Crimea to Cannes, France, by bus and train with three transfers. Now I was one of seven million Ukrainians — 20 per cent of the nation’s population — forced by the conflict to seek global refuge.

I had made it to palm trees and sun in the European Union, but my future there was clouded. I needed that Canadian visa. In the meantime, in Cannes on the Cote d'Azur, I lucked into a small studio, rented via Airbnb with a 68 per cent discount because summer season had ended. Now I strolled the promenade of La Croisette with its luxury cars and casinos. In nearby Monaco, a dreamscape of yacht marinas and gorgeous beaches lapped by warm Mediterranean waters, everyone seemed calm and carefree. Heaven!

For them, at least. Don't confuse immigration with tourism. The French Riviera is great for retired millionaires, but not so great for people like me seeking an official status there called “temporary protection.” If you rent accommodation through Airbnb or Booking, you will be granted temporary protection for one month only. You will not be able to get a work permit. It will be impossible to open an account in a French bank. You will have to renew your documents monthly, spending many hours in lines in the local prefecture.

Palm trees in Cannes on a clear day.
Promenade de la Croisette in Cannes. ‘The French Riviera is great for retired millionaires, but not so great for people like me seeking an official status there called “temporary protection.”’ Photo by Yuriy Umansky.

If you are lucky enough to rent long-term housing, you will receive temporary protection status, a work permit and medical care for a period of six months. But in France, to find even the simplest job, you need knowledge of the French language. The French government will allot you the equivalent of C$19 per day, not enough to cover living costs.

In France, your temporary protection status must be renewed every six months — until, that is, the French government considers the situation in Ukraine normalized, in which case the status will be cancelled and Ukrainians will have to leave the country. Other EU countries are enforcing similar, if somewhat varying, temporary protection rules.

Say you seek a U.S. visa. You would need to have friends or relatives there and a supporter who agrees to provide you with financial support for the duration of your stay.

What does Canada offer by comparison? On March 17, Canadian Minister of Immigration Sean Fraser announced the launch of the Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel, or CUAET. These measures to help Ukrainians come to Canada are free of fees, simpler than the American and British versions, and allow a longer stay than does the EU. Under CUAET, Ukrainians may be able to stay in Canada for up to three years. CUAET also provides Ukrainians with the ability to work and study in Canada until it is safe to return to Ukraine. Temporary residents may be able to apply for permanent residence through various programs, should they decide to stay in Canada at the end of their temporary stay.

Compared to Canada, Europe’s draw for emigrating Ukrainians is that it is cheaper and closer to home. But Canada provides more stability, which is important for people escaping nightmares by living out of suitcases. Some deciders for me were that Canada seemed welcoming, offering a better chance to find a job with my English skills, and beautiful nature. Under CUAET, I didn’t need a host or a sponsor. What that meant, however, was that I was going to move to a place where I didn’t know a single person.

On Nov. 14 my Canadian visa came through. On Nov. 23, I boarded an Airbus A330 that took me to British Columbia.

CANADA

“Looking for a job and a host for the first time.” Posts like this are the most common in the “Ukrainians in Canada” group on Facebook and similar spots on social media. Most of the nearly 150,000 Ukrainians arriving in Canada over the past year have tried in advance to find a job and a host — someone to help them find housing and orient them to their new lives in this country.

Most arrivals only know beginner’s English, so they seek assistance from Ukrainians who already have made it to Canada. Some arrange to live and work on a farm. Some, believing that workers may be more in demand in places sparsely populated, fly to emptier parts of Canada and try their luck. Most of them do land temporary survival jobs as, say, construction helpers.

Officers of the Community Airport Newcomers Network, or CANN, welcome Ukrainians who didn’t find a host in advance and need emergency accommodation. In Vancouver International Airport they provided information in English, Ukrainian and Russian. The CANN program provides this assistance on an as needed, urgent basis to Ukrainians who are unable to secure housing and have nowhere else to stay. CUAET visa holders are eligible to receive the accommodation from one to 14 days. This period allows additional time for Ukrainians to access one-time federal financial assistance and to find longer term housing.

In Cannes, a month before I stepped foot in Canada, I started searching the web for housing in Metro Vancouver. Lacking a sponsor, I quickly realized that it was near impossible to find long-term accommodations online without a permanent job and a Canadian bank account. After talking with several scammers who offered to pay for housing six to 12 months in advance, I realized that my only option was to find temporary housing and use that as a base to explore more permanent options in one of the most expensive areas to live in North America. Places I located through Booking and Airbnb in Vancouver were beyond my means. But almost miraculously, on Craigslist, I found a room in Surrey for a reasonable price.

On my first day in Canada, I realized that the bureaucratic system here is much more open to immigrants than in France. By the day’s end in Surrey, I had received an open work permit, a social insurance number and I’d opened a bank account. My first impressions of Canadians, from border guards to bus drivers, Service Canada workers to supermarket cashiers, were of open-hearted persons always ready to help you.

A suburban house with a white car in the driveway.
‘It’s a source of comfort to know I am part of a much larger, longer story in Canada.’ Upon arrival, the author rented a room in this house in Surrey. Photo by Yuriy Umansky.

It's cool that in British Columbia there are some organizations that help immigrants settle and start a new life in Canada. In advance I booked an appointment with one of them: Mosaic, which provides settlement and employment services for newcomers. Mosaic’s settlement worker Fairuz Zenati gave me useful links and tips on how to start adapting here in Canada. Co-ordinator Judy Lee consulted about the credential evaluation of my Ukrainian PhD in public administration. Employment Services advisor Grace Valentin-Douglas is helping me seek a job where I can apply my work experience and education. Earlier this month, WorkBC, an arm of the provincial ministry that helps connect workers with employers, told me I’d be meeting with one of their staff members in February.

I’m eager for the assistance because of the predicament I and many Ukrainian arrivals face in B.C. You can fairly easily find a survival job, but if you seek well-paid employment, you are in a catch-22 situation. To get a well-paid job, you need Canadian work experience. But to get Canadian work experience, you need to have had a job. It’s a similar situation when seeking stable housing. You zero in on an apartment, only to find out there are 30 other applicants. To get the lease, you need references from previous hosts and permanent well-paid jobs.

It’s a puzzle but one that most immigrants manage to eventually solve. That’s what I tell myself to calm my concerns. As I do, a song from my youth in the 1980s plays through my head. The British rocker Black sings:

Look at me standing here on my own again, up straight in the sunshine
No need to run and hide, it's a wonderful, wonderful life.

It’s a source of comfort to know I am part of a much larger, longer story in this country. My decision that life had become impossible in Ukraine, that my red line had been reached and now must be crossed, propelled me to Canada like so many others over the course of history. Canada is home to the largest Ukrainian diaspora in the world. About 1.36 million people in Canada, close to four per cent of the population, reported at least one of their ethnic origins as Ukrainian in the 2016 census. The first wave of this historic migration began in 1897, when Canada granted free land in the Canadian prairies to immigrants. When Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union in 1922, that triggered another large migration to Canada, as did the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

How large will this latest wave prove to be? That depends on a few factors. While the federal government reports it has approved entry for 478,357 Ukrainian nationals, as of Jan. 1, just 140,094 of them, less than a third, had arrived in Canada. Not every Ukrainian granted the opportunity to immigrate to Canada seizes it.

Some, holding out hope for a return to their previous lives, may have decided that hanging on in Europe is the logical place to wait out dark times close to home. Canada beckons to those of us who have decided to start a new life, and take on a new identity. In Canada, there is an opportunity to become a Canadian while remaining Ukrainian. No comparable identity is possible in Europe. As a Ukrainian refugee, the rules of citizenship as well as cultural attitudes mean you will never become a German, or an Italian, or even a Pole. You will always be seen as a foreigner by locals, my friends in various countries tell me.

Here in Surrey, it rains a lot. Yet most days I feel as if I am standing up straight in the sunshine. I am done with running and hiding. I am building a new wonderful life. Millions of people have done this in Canada before me, millions of people will do so after me. I'm grateful to be one of them.  [Tyee]

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