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Welcoming Refugees from Ukraine

July 6, 2022
Ukraine family
Photo: Ed Van Beilen

As the war in Ukraine continues, refugees seeking safety have begun to arrive in Canada. Churches and individuals are finding ways to help them adapt to a new homeland. Members of Meadowlands Fellowship CRC, in Ancaster, Ont., for example, welcomed a family of 11 as they arrived in Toronto on June 13.

Meadowlands Fellowship has sponsored 40 refugees in the past five years, and its team continues with efforts to sponsor refugees from Iraq, Eritrea, and other countries.

For the Ukrainian sponsorship, said a team member, Meadowlands Fellowship is partnering with the Slavic Full Gospel Church in Brantford, Ont., a small congregation that has committed to bringing 100 Ukrainian refugees to Canada. The church asked the refugee team at Meadowlands to help with a family of 11: two parents and nine children, seven of whom are adopted. Parents Andreii and Tania were both involved in adoption and foster work in Ukraine.

“It all started around the evening meal,” said Ren Siebenga, who heads the refugee team at Meadowlands Fellowship. During their regular Tuesday-evening dinner with their granddaughter, a student at nearby Redeemer University, Siebenga said he wondered out loud about whether they knew anyone with Ukraine connections, or could find ways to help. Their granddaughter mentioned that Duncan Todd, principal of the local Christian high school, is married to a woman from Ukraine, and they both speak Ukrainian and Russian.

“I called Duncan; he put me in touch with the Slavic Full Gospel church of Brantford . . . and the rest is history,” said Siebenga. “I connected with pastor Oleg and his wife Irene – both were in Warsaw at the time, helping Ukrainians fill out visa applications. Upon their return I visited their church and saw the massive undertaking they were engaged in. Our refugee team immediately gave them $12,500 for airplane tickets and thus began support of this undertaking.”

The deacons of Meadowlands Fellowship joined the effort soon afterward, giving a further donation to support the refugee efforts of Slavic Full Gospel Church and joining the refugee team in a meeting at the Brantford church. During the meeting, the refugee team and deacons agreed to sponsor the family of 11, with children ranging in age from four to 18. The support of Meadowlands Fellowship members soon followed, with donations of funds and household essentials.

The family was scheduled to arrive in late May, but paperwork complications caused a delay, and that gave the refugee team a bit more time to secure housing and to gather donated clothing and household goods. “The church and local community have donated bags and bags of clothing, bedding, towels, toys, kitchen supplies, and bikes,” said refugee team member Evelyn Hielema.

The family’s arrival date was then set for June 13.

“One of the challenges for this particular family was in how to pick them up at the airport: Use four cars? Rent a huge van?” said Hielema. “We ended up picking them up in a school bus donated by Calvin Christian School in Hamilton and driven by a church member, Sonya Wonder, who has her bus driver's license.” The family arrived with just two suitcases and some backpacks as luggage.

Numerous volunteers have been stepping up to help. The Todds have been serving as translators, and when they are not available, others step in and make do with Google translate. Refugee team members have also been helping the family with cell phone and banking matters – and more. Next on the list, said Siebenga, is obtaining a driver’s license and a used car, along with starting the process of finding employment. A physiotherapist in Hamilton is providing free care for Tania for a complex leg fracture she sustained while bringing her children to safety during a bombing attack in March. After a presentation at Holland Christian Homes, the refugee team received further generous financial support for their efforts.

For the summer months, the family is living in student housing at Redeemer University, which is adjacent to Meadowlands Fellowship, while the refugee team searches for permanent housing.

“The family are deeply committed Christians,” said Hielema. “They have attended our church the past two Sundays, despite understanding almost nothing. But there were a few times when they recognized the tune of a song and could joyfully sing along in Ukrainian.”

Despite having come through the trauma of invasion and displacement, the family is astoundingly resilient, said Hielema.

Some people have questioned the decision by Canada’s leaders to fast-track refugees from Ukraine while people in other conflict zones or dangerous situations around the world wait. Even members of the refugee team at Meadowlands felt this tension, but they decided to proceed while continuing efforts with refugees from other countries, Hielema explained.

An action alert from the CRC Centre for Public Dialogue in Ottawa agreed that Canada’s quick action to provide safety to Ukrainians is valid and important, but it noted numerous challenges within Canada’s refugee resettlement systems that still need to be addressed, including inequity of access to refugee protection.

World Renew has a refugee sponsorship program in Canada that facilitates churches’ sponsoring individuals and families as refugees. However, at this time, Ukrainian refugees are not being sponsored and resettled under the private sponsorship of the refugee program, said Rebecca Walker, Refugee Program manager for World Renew. She explained that Ukrainian refugees have been given temporary visas to enter Canada, allowing a much quicker process.