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Jack Knox: A year later, Island offers Ukrainians a candle in the dark

Close to a thousand displaced Ukrainians have found safety on Vancouver Island since the Feb. 24, 2022, Russian invasion. More are coming.
Father Yuriy Vyshnevskyy leads a Lenten service at the Ukrainian Catholic Church of St. Nicholas on Thursday. Close to a thousand displaced Ukrainians have found safety on ­Vancouver Island since the Feb. 24, 2022 Russian invasion. More are coming. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

When we first met Father Yuriy Vyshnevskyy, a year ago today, he looked tired.

The priest was leading the morning service at Victoria’s St. Nicholas the ­Wonderworker Ukrainian Catholic church, but had been up all night d­oomscrolling Ukrainian ­websites as Russian tanks rolled into his homeland.

One year after the invasion, he says he still lies awake at night.

What, he asks himself, is he supposed to say to all these new parishioners, the shattered ones arriving from places like ­Mariupol, Odesa and Donetsk with stories that shove the ­reality of war right in your face?

Often, though, he finds he needn’t speak at all. “You’re ­trying to find the right words, when all you really need is to be there, to listen.”

Some of the newcomers aren’t even Ukrainian Catholic. They’re there for the comfort of the language — Vyshnevskyy incorporates more Ukrainian into his services than he used to — and the sense of home they find in this candlelit sanctuary, 8,740 kilometres from Kyiv.

Close to a thousand displaced Ukrainians have found safety on Vancouver Island since the Feb. 24, 2022 invasion. More are coming.

The wave of emotion that bathed Victoria in yellow and blue might have ebbed, but the need hasn’t.

It hasn’t been easy. Within weeks of the invasion, Ottawa unveiled measures to hasten Ukrainians’ entry to Canada, but the expediency came at a cost.

Instead of arriving as ­refugees with sponsors and a support system in place, the ­newcomers came under a ­program that gave them what were effectively three-year work permits and little else. Some stepped off the plane with no one to greet them at all.

Typical was the story in April when Victoria’s Ukrainian Cultural Centre — suddenly thrust into the role of ad hoc refugee agency — learned of a traumatized 85-year-old woman who had landed here with nothing but the clothes on her back. Not on anyone’s radar screen, she had spent a month with her 20-year-old granddaughter, who didn’t know where to turn for help.

We also heard of tales of women (with Ukraine requiring men age 18 to 60 to stay home to fight, the newcomers are disproportionately female) trying to navigate life as single mothers in a strange land in a foreign language. Even if you can find a daycare, how do you pay for it? Same goes for housing in one of the tightest markets in Canada.

The thing is, for all the darkness around the Ukrainian story, it is also one in which Islanders can take pride. People have stepped up.

Take Brian and Sharon Holowaychuk. When they bought East Sooke’s Grouse Nest, it was with the dream of resurrecting the historic property as a resort. For now, though, they have turned it into a home for Ukrainians, about 30 of whom live in the main lodge, sharing cooking and cleaning duties.

Some residents leave as they become independent — four families have moved on so far — but the lodge is always full. Next week will see the arrival of a 23-year-old English teacher who was bombed out of her apartment in Ukraine.

The associated Ukrainian Safe Haven organization is buying blood-clotting bandages and tourniquets that will be distributed by a surgeon in Ukraine whose wife lives at Grouse Nest.

They’re far from the only ones to help. For example, thanks to our readers, a $100,000 grant from the Times Colonist Christmas Fund paid for bus passes, driver’s tests, cellphone SIM cards and medical tests, and helped create Ukrainian Village, a transitional housing community that 35 women and children now call home at the Kiwanis property on Cook Street.

Much of the heavy lifting has been done by the Help Ukraine Vancouver Island umbrella group that emerged last spring to co-ordinate efforts, assisting the bewildered newcomers in finding their feet and linking them to host families who volunteered space in their homes.

And the newcomers do, in fact, find their feet, says HUVI’s Karmen McNamara. “Typically they can be self-sustaining within three months,” she says. By that time, they generally have a paycheque coming in, the kids in school and a place of their own to live.

Someone with moderate English will usually find work within three weeks, she said. Many have in-demand skills. Those with less command of the language still find work cleaning hotel rooms, say.

The tricky part is getting them through that initial period. Ottawa provides getting-started money of $3,000 for adults and $1,500 per child, but it can take awhile to arrive.

And there are always unexpected expenses. “If someone doesn’t have shoes, we’re buying them shoes” is the way McNamara puts it.

Last week, faced with a surge in new arrivals, HUVI issued a plea for money and host families. That did result in people volunteering to open their homes, but more are needed as the flow continues.

The surge was probably related to a March 31 deadline for Ukrainians wanting to take advantage of the visa program Canada brought in last spring. Don’t bet against the program being extended, though — there will be a demand as long as the war rages.

And rage it does. At St. Nicholas church, Vyshnevskyy talks of his parents, back in Ukraine, being awakened at 4 a.m. by an attack on a nearby oil refinery.

A year after the invasion, he still finds it mind-boggling that a modern people should be capable of the horrors on display in the country he left 15 years ago. “To me, it was something from history books.”

Then, with the Lenten season beginning, he dons his vestments, slips into his mother tongue and leads his church in prayer.

Joining in is Motria Koropecky, a Ukrainian-born parishioner who was also at St. Nicholas at that service a year ago this morning. With the candles flickering in the darkness, she talks about faith in God and gratitude for the support shown to Ukraine by the western world.

“You can’t despair,” she says. “You have to hope.”

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• Victorians are being invited to a vigil marking one year since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

It will be held from 6-7 p.m. tonight, Friday, Feb. 24, on the lawn on the Superior Street side of the legislature.

Those who are able are asked to bring battery-operated candles.

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