Hundreds of people fleeing war-torn Ukraine will be arriving in Edmonton next Monday on a donated flight.
“We’re extremely delighted about this new opportunity to help create a safe haven for Ukrainians very quickly here in Alberta,” said Orysia Boychuk, president of Ukraine Canadian Congress Alberta Provincial Council.
The aircraft was already coming to Edmonton as a “deadhead” flight, with the intention of picking up cargo to deliver to Ukraine via Poland.
The donations were collected this past week by the Canadian Polish Historical Society, spearheaded by former premier Ed Stelmach and former MLA Thomas Lukaszuk.
LOT Polish Airlines provided the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Shell Canada donated 50 tonnes of aviation fuel for the transatlantic flight, the society said.
Boychuk said a private sponsor and the airline recently told her the flight would no longer arrive empty in Canada.
“They’ll fill up passengers in Poland, in Warsaw, to come to Alberta. And when the passengers are dropped off, the cargo will be filled up and the plane will be filled with cargo: medical aid and emergency response supplies.”
The passengers have to meet criteria to come to Canada as visitors — not as refugees — Boychuk explained.
“The criteria to be met is people who have a visa, a passport and have a host here that is willing to take them and look after them while they arrive,” she explained. “They’re actually not refugees.”
“Everyone coming on the flight has family or friends already in Alberta who are able to help host them.”
“If they arrived as a refugee status, they would be entitled to a completely different sets of supports to help them help them here in Canada,” Boychuk explained. She added refugee status is tracked and there’s a plan to follow that includes housing supports, whereas these people will be more on their own.
“The most significant difference is food and shelter. There are no supports for these people. There’s no flight support,” she said, reiterating the donated plane and fuel.
While the Ukrainians arriving in Edmonton next week are not legally seen as refugees in the eyes of the Canadian government, they are that in everything but name.
“They have been displaced by the war in Ukraine. They are fleeing from a war-torn country, and millions, as you know, have already left Ukraine.”
The Government of Canada is encouraging refugees to continue to apply to come to Canada through traditional immigration streams. At least 6,000 expedited applications from Ukraine have been approved since January.
The feds have also bolstered its presence in the region so it can fast-track immigration applications for Ukrainians. Canada has already expedited existing immigration applications from Ukraine.
There’s also a new reunification program for Ukrainians with family in Canada who wish to come and remain here permanently.
According to UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency, half of the country’s children — or 4.3 million of an estimated 7.5 million — have now fled their homes, including about 1.8 million refugees who have left the country.
The children are everywhere, curled up amid suitcases in train stations, humanitarian aid tents, evacuation convoys. It is one of the largest such displacements since the Second World War.
With few exceptions, Ukraine is not allowing men between 18 and 60 leave the country in case they’re called to fight, so most of those fleeing overseas are women, children and the elderly. The exact number arriving on Monday is not yet known.
Boychuk said the Ukraine Canadian Congress is looking at setting up a system with airlines to have 24/7 presence in the airport. “So when people come in, that they have a place to go and they ask some questions and be redirected and help navigate it.”
Boychuk explained those arriving will already have temporary visas and work permits in place.
“They’ll be able to get to work right away. It’s just a little bit difficult to actually process that piece, because a lot of them are women and children and they will be also dealing with the stress and aftermath of arriving from a war-torn country. So it’s going to be a bit of a challenge,” she said.
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In addition to being able to start working right away, Boychuk said the children coming to Canada will be able to continue their education.
“The government has allowed for access to go to school up to Grade 12 immediately,” she said, adding another benefit to arriving as a visitor is access to health-care services.
She said some of the people will be arriving with little to no money, having had to flee Ukraine so fast.
“There is a large proportion of the community arriving with zero funds. So just the basic humanitarian needs are going to be very challenging and a huge burden is placed on our communities here to address this,” Boychuk said.
“We know that thousands of people are going to be arriving in this kind of a situation.”
The Canadian Polish Historical Society took the lead in organizing the flight and Boychuk said the Ukraine Canadian Congress is very grateful to its community partners for doing that to help Ukrainians who are stranded in Poland.
“As everybody knows, the pressures are very high and the numbers are extremely high in Poland of displaced refugees, and we need to do our part here.”
Once the passengers have disembarked, the plane will be loaded up with aid to send back overseas.
Boychuk said many Albertans have stepped up, including the owner of the warehouse space where goods are being stored. She said the airport authorities have also been very accommodating and supportive, doing what they can to help clear red tape.
“The cargo will arrive in Warsaw. There it will be picked up by NGOs and it will be moved forward to cross the border into Ukraine.”
As for Monday, Boychuk can’t wait to welcome Alberta’s newest residents.
“We’re very, very excited. We’re very hopeful. We want to do everything we can to help Ukrainians arrive here and provide a safe haven for them.”
— With files from Cara Anna, The Associated Press, and The Canadian Press