As the war in Ukraine continues, many Ukrainian families are seeking a safe place to start a new life, and some have made their way to Airdrie.
Several Airdrie families have signed up to host these families, helping the newcomers land on their feet.
Glenn Smaha and his wife Jessica Jacobs welcomed a young couple into their home during the third week of May and continue to be their host family as they start their lives here.
“I'm pretty proud of the number of people going through the process right now of setting themselves up to be sponsors, but the need is still greater than that,” Smaha said. “Tens of thousands of Ukrainians have applied for a Canadian visa, so there will be a lot of people.”
Smaha said they initially offered their home for three weeks, but six weeks later, they feel comfortable to continue hosting Ukrainians Michael and Jenny until they secure their own apartment.
A second-generation Canadian of Ukrainian heritage, Smaha felt the need to help out when he saw the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine that started in February.
“It had a pretty profound effect on me, knowing what my relatives did to get to this country and how hard they worked once they got here too. I really felt a strong desire to help in some way,” he said.
He reached out to the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC), who worked with the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society (CCIS) to connect Ukrainian refugees to Canadian host families.
Leaving Ukraine through Slovakia and eventually making their way to Rome, Michael and Jenny were accepted into UCC’s program that helped them get to Canada.
Twenty-five year-old Michael said deciding to leave Ukraine and his family was a difficult decision, but it was the safest option.
“I am personally missing my parents very much. It was a pretty hard decision to leave because my parents are still there and they can't leave Ukraine right now,” he said, adding he is afraid for their future in Ukraine.
He spoke of the daily bombings of Ukraine’s cities by the Russian army and how dangerous life had become in his home country.
“It is very dangerous to live there. It was a hard decision, but there was only one right decision to continue living,” he said.
Canada had been on his radar for some time as a potential place to move to one day, he said.
Unsure if he would be selected, he applied for the UCC program with some prior knowledge of Canada and the Calgary area specifically.
“It was my aim to go there someday,” he said.
Michael previously worked for American company, AT&T, and had been to the United States on an exchange student program.
“I'm pretty aware of how life is going on here and I like it,” he said.
Smaha and Jacobs picked up Michael and Jenny from the Calgary airport in May, and the two then had to quarantine for the first 14 days due to the pandemic.
In the meantime, their hosts were able to help them get started with things like an Alberta Health Care card, a bank account, a social insurance number, and even a driver’s license.
Smaha and Jacobs worked on connecting the couple to the community and finding employment by building a resume and responding to job postings.
“It's all those things that a new Canadian would have no clue even where to get started, so having somebody that lives here and to navigate the process… has certainly made it easier for them,” Smaha said.
He added the language barrier wasn’t a big issue, but they helped identify cultural differences and taught them about various Canadian systems and customs.
“They've been pretty self-sufficient. They're very humble [and] they haven't asked for much at all,” he said.
They are now in the final stages of securing an apartment and making sure nobody takes advantage of them, Smaha added.
Michael secured a job as a carpenter, while his 20-year-old girlfriend, Jenny, recently began working part-time at Funky Petals, a local flower shop in Airdrie.
“In some things it's pretty hard but we have huge support from our host and from some people in Airdrie that we [met],” Michael said. “It's great here – people are supportive, and we don't feel like refugees in the normal meaning of refugees. We feel like equals, so it's very great here.”
He expressed his appreciation for his host family, Smaha and Jacobs, and added they plan to stay in Airdrie.
Once Michael and Jenny are on their own, Smaha and his wife hope to help out another family in the future.
Support from community groups like Airdrie’s Over 50 Club also helped the young Ukrainian couple get established in Airdrie.
Michael and Jenny were invited to attend a fun evening with entertainment where they were given more than $1,000 and certificates raised through a recent Ukrainian dinner fundraiser and the generosity of local businesses.
Arnold Kurz, Ways and Means Director with the Over 50 Club, spearheaded this benefit with a committee from the Club.
“They came to the club and then we presented a check,” Kurz said, adding Michael and Jenny had brought them some muffins as a way of saying thank-you, but didn’t realize how many people would be in attendance.
“They said, ‘We didn't think there would be that many people.’ But they really enjoyed the show, so that was good.”
Kurz added there is another Ukrainian family with two kids who recently joined the Airdrie community and the club expects to support them as well.
To connect with Airdrie’s Over 50 club, go to airdrieover50club.com/