New Montreal summer camp helps Ukrainian refugee children integrate in Quebec

A Ukrainian flag is pictured in front of Canadian flags in Ottawa on Friday, April 1, 2022. A free new summer camp aims to help Ukrainian refugee children and their families settle in Montreal. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

A basement in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood boomed with upbeat Ukrainian music Friday afternoon as a group of children jubilantly performed a dance routine before an audience of parents who brought them to safety from the war in their home country.

The 30 children, between the ages of five and 12, were the first cohort to attend camp Dyvo, a free, new summer program that aims to help Ukrainian refugee children and their families settle in Montreal. The Friday performance marked the end of the first two-week camp session. A new batch of 30 children will start next week.

Dyvo, or “wonder,” in English, is an initiative of the Quebec branch of the Ukrainian National Federation.

Branch president Taras Kulish said the goal of the program is to foster a sense of community among new arrivals and help them integrate in their new environment, using day trips to familiarize participant families with the city. The camp is based out of the federation’s community centre.

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So far, the camp has proved to be a critical social touchpoint for refugees who fled the war in Ukraine launched by Russia, Kulish said.

“You can only imagine leaving your family, all your cherished belongings behind,” he said in a recent interview. “You arrive in this country where you know nobody, you have no family, no friends. So the building of community through getting to know people of your own culture — you would imagine would be very important.”

Click to play video: 'Young Ukrainian hockey players gear up for Quebec move'
Young Ukrainian hockey players gear up for Quebec move

The program serves to promote Ukrainian culture while anchoring new immigrants in Montreal, Kulish explained, adding that it creates work for refugees by employing them as camp leaders. It also emphasizes the use of the Ukrainian language among campers, many of whom are attending school in French.

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The result is what Kulish described as a “`nurturing” setting that instils appreciation for the Ukrainian language and culture.

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For Maryna Kucher, the camp has been a way to ensure her 11-year-old son feels a sense of connection with her home country. She and her two sons arrived in Canada in April 2022, shortly after the war began. Kucher’s husband stayed behind to fight.

“I’m so happy about this program because our children, they need to keep their language, their traditions, especially when they’re younger,” she said before the performance began Friday. “It’s very important to speak, to sing, to draw, to be together and to help each other.”

Camp coordinator Olena Khomyakova said the camp has been able to leverage the talents of the refugee community to provide activities for the children. Local Ukrainian artists have given demonstrations in painting and stop-motion movie-making.

The walls of the community centre’s basement theatre were adorned in children’s drawings and posters, all of them carrying messages in Ukrainian.

Anastasiia Soliak, whose nine-year-old son attended the camp, said the experience helped facilitate his integration in Quebec.

She said it was “very important for children to be integrated but also to be in (a) network which is safe, which is the first step before integration into new society.”

The Ukrainian National Federation received 200 applications from local families who hoped to enrol their children in the camp this year, Kulish said. He said he is trying to secure enough funding to expand the program in the coming years.

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