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Ukrainian refugees helping newer arrivals settle in Greater Victoria

The group running a food share program says most of the volunteers are also refugees
Ukrainian refugees are returning to Help Ukraine Vancouver Island’s food share program as volunteers. (Courtesy Karmen McNamara)

Ukrainian refugees are stepping up to help newer arrivals in Greater Victoria.

Karmen McNamara, general manager at Help Ukraine Vancouver Island, which runs host-finding programs and a food share program, has recently secured funding to hire one refugee to run its food share program.

As it turns out, the majority of the volunteers who help out at the weekly events are former refugees.

“We’ve found that financial donations have petered off as people reach their maximum,” McNamara said. “That’s where we’ve had to get creative in terms of getting donations of things.”

Originally the program worked through handing out grocery cards, but that became too costly. Partnering with the Capital Regional District’s food network has made accessing food cheaper and easier.

The network partners with businesses and offers refugees produce like meat, dairy fruits, as well as canned goods and often bread or cakes. Businesses will often come forward themselves – McNamara noted recently they received 100 pounds in coffee from a local roaster.

At the most recent event held at the Metchosin Community Hall on Monday (April 10), around 30 Ukrainian families received food through the program per week, around 90 to 100 people. There are events held throughout Greater Victoria and the mid-Island, feeding around 300 families a week.

The program started last fall and has helped families navigate the challenging first few months after arrival. McNamara said families set up with hosts usually stay for around three months before finding their own place, and on average keep using the food program for another three months after that. But around the six-month mark, McNamara says people are usually good on their own, and in some cases come back to volunteer and help newer arrivals.

“The other thing that I’ve really been struck by is how important it is for these people to become independent. They really put a lot of emphasis on being able to take care of their families and move to self-sustainability. So I think anything that we can provide that gives them a handrail in doing that is just incredibly important.”

That timeline varies.

Some families who are single-parent households often struggle to hit the ground running in Canada, with the added challenges of finding child care in addition to housing, employment and food. Around a third of families Help Ukraine VI works with are in that situation. Often those families have come from western Ukraine, whereas families where the father is able to leave are coming from Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine.

“Those who are in occupied regions, so Kharkiv, Kherson, Donetsk and so forth, actually cannot get to Ukraine without being killed,” McNamara said. “It is impossible for them to escape out of the occupied territory, in the direction of Ukraine – they will be shot. So those men are escaping the occupied territories by either going to Russia, or going to Turkey and then from there, those families will frequently end up in Canada or in the U.S.”

Families who have taken that path commonly end up in Canada, whereas countries like Poland are seeing more families where the father stayed behind, according to McNamara.

“Given the limitations of what we are working with, and that Ukrainians don’t have refugee support, and we’re a grassroots organization that runs on community donations – our goal is to get people to be self-sustaining as quickly as possible.”

READ MORE: ‘Nowhere to go’: Help Ukraine Vancouver Island sees 300% rise in people seeking aid

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