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North Shore families step up to host Ukrainian refugees

While the wheels of government turn slowly, North Shore residents are using social media to connect with refugees seeking homes here.

North Shore residents have been turning to social media groups and word of mouth to help refugees fleeing war in Ukraine escape to North and West Vancouver.

Families have been turning to several Facebook groups, along with the Next Door app and informal networks to contact Ukrainians seeking a place to stay in Canada and exchange information.

North Vancouver resident Steve Wright was one of those who turned to Facebook to reach out directly to Ukrainian families. As he watched images of the war unfolding in Ukraine over the past month, Wright said he knew he had to do something to help.

Although Wright has no personal connection to Ukraine, the plight of refugees fleeing their homes as cities were shelled was gut-wrenching to him.

Wright said his thoughts soon turned to hosting a Ukrainian family. “I’ve got the means and the space at my place,” said Wright, an investment manager who has previously hosted international students.

Wright said when he first decided to host a family, he contacted the Canadian embassies in Poland and Romania and learned about the steps refugees had to take to come to Canada.

North Van host connected through Facebook group

When he posted in a Facebook group linking Canadian hosts with Ukrainian families, he received a hundred replies. From there, he narrowed down the responses to families he thought would be a good fit with his own and with the space available.

Within two days, “I was able to find two families that I thought would be a good match for us,” he said.

But Wright said he also wanted to meet his prospective guests face-to-face. So he took the unusual step of flying to Poland over Spring Break with his 13-year-old son.

The first family they met included a psychologist mother, Nataliya, and two teens, originally from Kyiv.

For that family, it was the second time they had been forced from their home by a Russian invasion – the first was when Russian invaded the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine several years ago. “We cannot understand what they’ve gone through,” said Wright, who communicated with the help of phone translation apps. Nataliya’s husband was still in Kyiv, helping Ukrainian forces, said Wright.

The next day they met a second family headed by a woman named Svitlana, with her two children, aged eight and 10. Before the war, Svitlana’s husband worked in construction. “They were a middle-class family,” said Wright, in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. They had crossed the border into Poland where casual acquaintances had taken them in.

Visit nets North Shore homes for two families

Wright had promised his suite first to Svitlana when they met online, but promised Natalya he would try to also find her accommodation on the North Shore.

Once back in Canada, he put the word out through his son's rep hockey team. Soon after, he got a call from a lawyer whose father-in-law was interested in helping. “I hooked them up with Natalya,” said Wright. “Now Natalya’s got a place.”

The reality of what the Ukrainian people are enduring hit home when he asked Svitlana if there was anything she needed.

“’I don’t really need anything but my husband (still assisting Ukrainian forces in Ukraine) needs medical supplies,’” she told Wright. “Tourniquets.”

The refugees who’ve found themselves homeless were until very recently living lives just like most people on the North Shore, said Wright.

“I started thinking: 'What if this ever happened here? Who’s going to help me?'”

Next Door app leads host to Ukraine family

Mary Konkin-Eruera is another North Vancouver resident who connected with a Ukrainian family via a request on social media.

She responded to a note from a West Vancouver woman looking for accommodation for a woman and her seven-year-old daughter from Ukraine.

“We have a self-contained suite in our home,” said Konkin-Eruera, who decided, “I can offer that.”

Konkin-Eruera said after talking to the family in a video call, she recently started a North Shore Facebook group, NS Host Network for Ukainian Newcomers, where both host families and arriving Ukrainians can share information and connect with each other.

“Right now it’s word of mouth and it's just trust,” she said, adding 55 people joined her group in the first three days.

Grassroots helpers leading efforts

Konkin-Eruera's mother's family is of Ukrainian heritage, arriving in Canada at the turn of the last century. Her father's family of Doukhobors also fled persecution in Russia. 

She sees parallels in their experiences and those of the present-day refugees. "None of us chose to leave. We pretty much had to leave," she said.

Konkin-Eruera said while official government portals are well intentioned, the wheels of bureaucracy grind slowly. Meanwhile, grassroots helpers are already moving into high gear. “People are coming.”

Ukraine Peace Graffiti Poland
Graffiti of a peace sign in Ukraine colours on a Warsaw street. courtesy Steve Wright