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First week in Alberta 'amazing,' says Ukraine refugee

A Ukraine refugee describes her first week living in Alberta.
GazetteEP-16 C
An antique tractor proudly displays the Ukrainian flag on Sturgeon Road April 14, 2022. Several Ukrainians have been settling in with local host families. JOHN LUCAS/St Albert Gazette

ST. ALBERT, ALBERTA – Polina Zub is a university student from the central Ukraine city of Kryvyi Rih and she has nothing but good things to say about her first week in living in St. Albert, northwest of Edmonton.

“It's amazing. I walk the dogs, I go outside. It's a very beautiful place. I really like it here,” she said.

Zub, who was studying international business administration, is trying to get into the University of Alberta to take advantage of the year of free tuition offered to Ukrainians who have settled in Alberta and who are suffering financial hardship due to war.

“I am planning to work because I need to live. Also rent an apartment. I also see many Ukrainians of my age are also coming in here. And in the future, I will probably rent something with them — if the university doesn't work out,” she said.

Zub said the process of coming to Canada was relatively easy for her, apart from the eight-hour queue to get her visa in Poland.

“That was the main problem. But as far as coming in, and to settle, there were no problems,” she said.

On April 20, at St. Albert restaurant Taste of Ukraine, Premier Jason Kenney announced another $2 million in funding from the province to support settlement and language services for Ukrainians arriving in Alberta. The question of whether governments are offering refugees enough support once they arrive in Canada still remains.

In a press release, the province said it expects Ukrainians to arrive with complex physical and mental-health needs and will provide health-care coverage to help them access supports, including hospital visits, physicians, and mental-health services.

The province said it, along with settlement agencies, will support Ukrainians to immediately access K-12 schooling for children, child care, services to find work, and access to adult learning programs for financial and literacy skills.

The province is also giving Ukrainians an Alberta identification card, which includes a driver’s licence, so they can access supports and services.

“The Canadian government made literally everything possible for incoming Ukrainians. They provided lots of support, starting with this program that would allow Ukrainians to come to Canada for three years to work here,” Zub said.

Janet Bertsch, who is hosting Zub, said the $2-million announcement is nice and very welcome, but she is still waiting to hear about child-care services, as many of the people coming are single women with their kids.

“The single greatest factor that's standing in the way of people being able to come here, get a job, and kind of hit the ground running is eligibility for the child-care subsidies. Right now, the Ukrainians are not eligible. ... I understand the government is discussing that, but nothing has been released yet,” she said.

Bertsch is also hosting a mother and her two children who arrived in St. Albert April 26. Bertsch said one of the children is 10, which is an awkward age as she is still a bit young to stay home alone if her mother is working.

“The only support financially for this family is the mom. And so, if the mom isn't able to put in a full work day, obviously there are going to be some problems,” Bertsch said.

Bertsch said there is also a lack of clarity around prescription drug programs.

“What is very good news is that when Ukrainians arrive right away, they're eligible to have free prescriptions. But nobody knows what happens to that program later on, because it is a temporary program,” she said.

Bertsch said they also had a situation where a little girl had a sore tooth, and nobody knew what to do as dental is not covered and the parents had no money. Eventually, they were referred to Catholic Social Services.

“Your dental is a health issue … if there is a severe mouth infection something has to be done about it pretty quickly and that care is expensive if you don't have the insurance,” she said.

St. Albert resident Marilyn Weiss and her husband are also hosting a family from Ukraine. The family is currently caught in a visa backlog in Poland.

“The mom was able to find work [in Poland]. She's working and her two daughters, the oldest daughter is I think 29 — she was a kindergarten teacher. And then the youngest daughter is 19 and she had to leave Grade 11,” Weiss said.

Weiss said it is necessary for the mom to work as it is a huge expense for them to cover the costs of flights to Canada. Once they get here, despite the government’s announcement for health-care coverage, they will still have to pay $400 per person for a medical exam.

“I think that's a real hardship. If there's any way that the Alberta government can give them that free medical exam, that would be a huge, huge help to them,” Weiss said.

Weiss said the language services will also be a huge help as none of the women staying with them speak English.

She also hopes to see group therapy sessions offered for Ukrainians in St. Albert led by a Ukrainian language speaker, “because there's going to be all kinds of issues … they're going to need to deal with the war, their loss of identity, their loss of the culture, I mean, even the food is going to be so different to them. I'm sure if there were group sessions, they could really talk it out even amongst themselves. And I think that would really help them,” said Weiss.

The Ukrainian family Dana Schnepf is hosting is waiting to see if they can take a chartered flight to Canada, something the federal government has promised but has yet to deliver on.

“They've been sort of holding out, waiting to see what that assistance will be. In the meantime, they're spending kind of a few nights here a few nights there. They're [living] a very unsettled life right now trying to wait out what the supports might be,” she said, which is not great for their seven-year-old daughter.

Schnepf also has issues with the $400 medical exam cost, as it is a burden on families. There are only specific doctors who can do this type of medical exam, there is travel involved, and very few doctors who do it speak Ukrainian.

According to a list on a government website, Schnepf said she found only one Ukrainian doctor in Edmonton.

“Is that doctor ready? Is there any other way we could go about getting this done other than this one doctor? I can't imagine. Probably that doctor is going to get backlogged, which is going to delay things for all of these people,” she said.

Schnepf said the mother was a lawyer in Ukraine, but she barely speaks English.

“I think that's where I have been frustrated and even trying to start looking for work for them. They completely understand that their first jobs here are going to have to be jobs that don't require verbal communication or are very minimal.

“I think they're going into [this] with eyes wide open, realizing they'll have to do some very basic jobs considering what their training and education is. But even finding those — [they] are going to be really difficult to come by,” she said.

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