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Their posts are filling the pages of social media groups, some pragmatic, others heartbreaking.

“The beginning of the war found us in Poland and there was nowhere to return. We decided to go to Canada,” reads a post by a Kateryna Danevych from May 2. Her next sentence may come as a surprise to some. “We chose the province of Newfoundland and Labrador because we read about its natural beauties and good people.”

In a few short paragraphs and pictures, we begin to capture a small, vivid window into this one family’s situation, as they prepare to flee Europe and the war in Ukraine, to land in the most easterly city in North America.

In early May, a plane chartered by the government of Newfoundland and Labrador, brought 166 Ukrainians to St. John’s. With little time to prepare, forced to rely on the kindness of strangers on an unfamiliar island, many of the Ukrainians writing on these group pages before the flight were careful to say they come “ready to work,” and are actively looking for a job, listing their qualifications and the professions or businesses they’re leaving behind.

“We cannot return to Ukraine and be constantly in danger,” one says. Many have children. Some parents who can’t make the journey for more complicated reasons, write in hopes they may be able to send their children to Canada, alone.

Adilya Dragan is a recent Newfoundlander originally from Russia. She is helping to lead the charge in her adopted province to gather and distribute needed supplies for Ukrainian refugees arriving in Newfoundland and Labrador. 

Adilya Dragan is a newer Newfoundlander. She and her family moved here from New Orleans four years ago.

“It feels like a couple of months to be honest,” she says from her home in Conception Bay South, a seaside community outside of the capital city. “Actually this is the best place to raise kids; there are some great people here. In the States they were mostly individuals, but here,” she says, “there is a society.”

Dragan now finds herself a key figure in a corner of that society. Since the war in Ukraine began she has coordinated donations of food, clothing, hygiene products, and medicine in shipments to people there. The first shipment was a thousand pounds, the second was three times as much.

Dragan is originally from Russia and her best friend is from Ukraine. It was her friend’s family who let her know so many of their basic needs were going unmet. Now though, Dragan is coordinating an effort that’s a little closer to home. In her home, in fact.

“Random people messaged me, okay do you need help?” she says.

Every day now, a woman named Karen Mercer makes the hour-long drive from Bay Roberts to Dragan’s home in Conception Bay South. Mercer is one of four people helping collect, sort, and distribute the donations coming in from Newfoundlanders.

“One day I had four truck loads,” Dragan says. Her entire home is filled to the brim, emptied, and then filled again. Her children’s playroom is currently a storage area for bedding. A local company donated a storage unit as well.

“I’m not stopping in the near future,” Dragan says.

The 166 Ukrainians in St. John’s landed there as the result of a remarkable and novel approach by the government of Newfoundland and Labrador. It formed a partnership with the Association For New Canadians in St. John’s, private business, and other volunteers to secure a pathway for Ukrainians to come to Newfoundland. Earlier this year the partnership sent a team to Poland to secure temporary and possibly long-term immigration to Canada.

The new arrivals are covered by the Canada-Ukraine Authorisation For Emergency Travel (CUAET) visa, which covers a three-year period. Health care is also covered.

With an unemployment rate of 12 per cent, it may hit a sore spot for locals when Ukrainians post their qualifications on the Ukraine-Newfoundland Facebook groups. And yet many replies are coming directly from companies. One of them, Mysa, which develops smart thermostats, is actively hiring 10 positions.

It may not end up that simple. To an outsider this loose coalition of government, the Association for New Canadians, and private individuals is confusing at best. There’s no single point of contact. And certainly the landscape in rural Newfoundland, where some Ukrainians will land, is unique. But there’s no doubt there has at least been a solid effort undertaken to bring these people to a more stable place.

Dragan has been in contact with some of the new arrivals.

“They arrive here with no job and no housing,” she says. “They’re being shy on asking (for things they might need). Right now they’re [in a] hotel, so everything is provided.” She knows it will be a long road. “They are exhausted and they are stressed out. The older the person, the more stress.”

Although there may never be a full understanding of all the stories and situations these new arrivals are experiencing, one woman, Pamela Ryder Lahey, has a better idea than most. With four decades experience in the court system, Lahey also spent time working in Ukraine. A colleague there reached out to her, asking if Lahey knew of any universities accepting Ukrainian students.

“I contacted MUN and discovered they have a program to fast track Ukrainian students. In short, the daughter of my Ukrainian colleague and four friends have been accepted into MUN,” Lahey writes. “I have found a four bedroom home for them, have gotten furniture and household goods donated, and are going to the home tomorrow with my friends to set up the kitchen!”

With the success of this placement, Lahey says several people in Ukraine are now writing her directly to help them find host families or apartments to rent. Chatting with Lahey, you also start to get a sense of just how desperate the situation remains.

“Today an administrative judge contacted me seeking help to relocate her 14 and 15-year-old sons,” Lahey says.

“I remember when I first came here, the first week, it was so foggy, so cold and miserable,” Dragan says. “Why am I here?”

Dragan’s husband is away much of the time, meaning Dragan is home in this unfamiliar place with her three young children. Yet slowly, she began to feel Newfoundland was growing on her.

“It is great because of the people,” she says.

Like many others, she was effectively locked inside her home during Snowmageddon, an infamous 2020 snowstorm. People, her neighbours, “they just showed up” and shoveled her out. She was added to a community “food train” for 40 days, receiving already cooked meals.

“It’s a big move to come to a new country, not knowing what to expect. I remember myself being an immigrant (to the U.S.) 10 years ago,” Dragan says. “Okay I’m here all alone, nobody wants me here, nobody knows me, I don’t speak English, I don’t have a job, where do I start?”

Of course, now her English is excellent and she talks about the ocean view from her home. For these new Ukrainians in Newfoundland, she is hoping for the best.

“I want them to know they are welcome here and they are not alone. We are going to support them.”

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