A British Columbia woman who is scrambling to get her Ukrainian family members to Canada says despite federal promises to streamline the process for refugees, the system remains cumbersome and confusing.
Michelle Petrusevich’s seven-year-old nephew Tymur and his mother Lina are currently in Poland, after fleeing eastern Ukraine amid intensifying Russian attacks.
“He’s so young, he thinks he’s on a trip,” she said.
“But when they were saying goodbye … he said, ‘Daddy we’re going on a trip, why are you not coming with us?’ And (his father) said, ‘Because I am a man, I have to defend my country,’ and (Tymur) said, ‘I want to stay too.'”
The pair are currently relying on the kindness of Polish strangers, who opened their home to them, but Petrusevich has vowed to bring them to Canada.
But she says she’s having trouble figuring out how.
Getting any kind of usable information from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) has proven a challenge, she said.
“You can go on the website, it’s very confusing. I’ve signed up for things but … it’s very cumbersome to navigate,” she said.
“There’s no specific information. They said they’ll announce it in a couple of weeks, but there’s nothing.”
IRCC said last Thursday that it hoped to have its new emergency immigration stream for Ukrainian nationals up and running within two weeks, and has promised more information on details such as processing times will be available “in the coming days and weeks.”
That dearth of specific information has been stressful for the thousands of Canadians of Ukrainian descent who are ready to take in family or other refugees fleeing the conflict.
She’s calling on the government both to hurry up with information for would-be sponsors, and to ensure that when the process is clear, it is as simple as possible.
“Regular, ordinary Canadians are ready to take Ukrainians in … I know they’re working on the process, but give us more information, tell us what documents we need to get ready so when it’s open people can actually apply and get through it,” she said.
“These people who are refugees, they have so much uncertainty to deal with, so knowing how to prepare would help clear that uncertainty and would help them deal with it.”
Petrusevich has been getting help with her case, pro-bono, from Vancouver immigration consultant Alix Titov, whose company Aynivisa has set up a free clinic for people trying to get their family out of the conflict zone.
Twenty staff members from the firm have also signed on as volunteers, often working late into the night after their regular workday has ended.
Titov said the team is trying to both help people navigate the Canadian immigration system, and to prevent them from getting taken advantage of by scammers trying to exploit the crisis.
“The internet is full of those false advertisements, ads, promotions,” he said. “It’s terrible.”
Ukrainians’ best bet is to apply for a special visitors visa, which will allow them to live and work for two years in Canada.
“Don’t panic. If you already left the warzone, don’t panic now. Look around, talk to people, talk to us. Get an assessment of your situation,” he said.
“If we advise you you can apply, you will apply, and we will help you for free because that’s what we do. If you’re not qualified, we will advise you on what you can do.”
In the meantime, Petrusevich says she’ll keep pushing to get her nephew and his mother to Canada as quickly as she can.
“It’s absolutely heartbreaking. He should be in school,” she said.
“We want to bring him here, we want him to be safe. (His father) told me, he said, ‘I want him to grow up in a place that’s safe, and I want him to be free.'”
— with files from Rumina Daya