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Ukrainian family finds refuge in Durham Region; municipal leaders say more federal funds needed

Desperate to escape the nightmares of a war-torn Ukraine, Oksana Valveska and her two daughters, 8 and 9, packed their lives in a suitcase in hopes of a fresh start – in Canada.

“It was very difficult; it was very dangerous,” Valveska said of their time in Ukraine during the war before they were able to escape.

“We had to hide in shelters every night and every day. Bombs, rockets falling just 500 meters from our house. When you go to bed, you never know if you’ll wake up,” says Valveska.

Valveska and her daughters packed up and left. A few long car rides and three plane trips later, they made it to Canada.

“When I saw the Canadian coast, the first thing that came to mind was… we’re home,” Valveska said.

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The family arrived in October 2022 and have lived in the Durham area ever since. Valveska said they were lucky compared to others and were able to get their visas within two months.

Valveska said they had the perfect life in Ukraine – they lived in Odessa, a beautiful city, their daughters were cheerleading champions, and life was peaceful and happy. Now she and her girls can’t imagine going back.

“You love it here, I love it here. I love the Canadian culture and mentality. Everyone here is so nice, so hospitable and so welcoming,” said Valveska.

Valveska’s mother was able to come to Canada with her, but her father is still at home. And Valveska hasn’t seen her husband since last March.

“He was in the front line of soldiers in the armed forces,” Valveska said.

She talks about how much she misses him.

“When we get a chance to talk, he tells me the only thing that keeps him warm and happy is that we’re safe.”

As we near the one-year anniversary of the war, government data shows that more than 145,000 Ukrainian citizens and Ukrainian Canadians have arrived in Canada since early last year.

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Valveska said that wartime conditions continue to worsen every day, power outages and blackouts continue to affect Ukrainians – and there is a constant need to take in more refugees.

Nearly 2,000 people from 750 households have gained access to emergency shelter and services through the GTHA Ukraine Response partnership, a project launched on June 6, 2022, according to a statement from community leaders in the region.

Mayors and chairmen of nine municipalities across the province, including Hamilton, Toronto, Markham and the Durham region, are calling on the federal government to increase funding for Ukrainian refugees and related costs.

“There is a little anger among the mayors and chairmen of the GTHA,” said Durham Region Chairman John Henry.

“You invite people into the country and give them a minimum stay in a hotel and the municipalities pay the difference.

“It’s a challenge, not something we plan or budget for. We need to find the money at a time when everything is more expensive.”

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The communities said they commend the federal government for its support, particularly with expedited visas, support for two-week hotel accommodations and emergency financial assistance.

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“These temporary supports from the federal government are welcome, but not sufficient,” the statement said.

Henry adds that there is no doubt that support for the Ukrainian community must continue, but the federal government must take the lead.

To date, the region has spent $2 million in support of Ukraine, but is asking the government to cover those costs that local governments have incurred out of pocket and to help with future costs as the war continues and more Ukrainians Seek a refuge.

“We will be there to ensure needs are met to do our best, but we have other challenges to address in the region,” Henry said. “This is something that should be addressed and funded at the federal level.”

The Durham region has a strong Ukrainian community and support has also been provided by the local branch of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress. President Katryna Rhovska said her priority is making sure they support newcomers to the region.

“Settlement workers… translators… all kinds of services, including Ukrainian volunteers to help with language barriers,” Rhovska said.

Valveska and her family were speechless with gratitude for the support they received and said they had no words for the kindness and blessings they experienced on their trip to Canada. Although she said there is a lot of uncertainty, she is doing her best to stay positive.

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“We’re a bit lost as far as the future is concerned,” said Valveska. “We know that you don’t have to make plans because the war in Ukraine showed that you can’t plan your life because one day someone will come and take everything away.

“I hope this support, which has helped me so much, continues because I know there are so many people just waiting to come to Canada.”

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