With the help of Jewish Family Services, Belmont Properties and others, the Zubrys family – Alexander, holding Artem, Sophie and Katrina – are getting settled in Vancouver. (photo from JFS)
For Oleksandra Liashyk and her family, who fled the Ukraine-Russia war last year, resettling in Vancouver was an opportunity for a new, though unexpected start. The family of three, who have an apartment and have enrolled their son in public secondary school, are learning English and navigating the ropes that come with resettlement. Still, Oleksandra admitted that it hasn’t been easy, that simply adjusting to a new culture, community and language has been a challenge. “This is absolutely another world,” she said.
It’s a sentiment shared by many of Vancouver’s newest immigrants from Ukraine. Fedor and Yulia, who came from wartorn Chernihiv with their two children, had good jobs as a real estate broker and a fitness instructor. While their children aren’t yet old enough to attend school, the kids are struggling with socialization. “The hardest thing to adjust for our children here was lack of communication with children of their age,” they said. “[E]verything looks quite unusual here.”
Like Fedor and Yulia, many others have left behind established businesses and jobs, professions that will be hard to restart in Vancouver. Lawyers, real estate brokers, accountants, social workers and business owners will need licences, education and a practised familiarity with Canada’s certification processes. But first, they need a place to live and a way to support their families.
According to Tanja Demajo, chief executive officer of Vancouver’s Jewish Family Services, the Ukrainian resettlement program was already in the planning stages when Russia formally announced its intended occupation of Ukraine in February 2022. Well-versed in creating programs to assist new immigrants, JFS knew the program would have to be versatile and able to address the many challenges faced by refugees on the move. Not all immigrants would be able to plan ahead before leaving Ukraine; many would arrive unprepared for their new home.
“Families reach out in many different ways,” Demajo explained. “Sometimes they call us from abroad and they are trying to understand the Canadian systems and how to actually come here. Sometimes we receive a call from other [Canadian] cities when families have already left [Ukraine] and they are thinking about relocating to the Lower Mainland. And sometimes we receive calls from families that are already here and are trying to navigate their next steps.”
According to Demajo, more than 80% of Ukrainian refugees enrolled in the resettlement program have advanced educations, but lack fluency in English, so JFS partnered with the B.C. Centre for Disease Control to provide its Food Skills program. In it, participants learned how to read labels in grocery stores and purchase food, which then became the ingredients for new Western-style dishes, which they cooked in the JFS Kitchen. “Throughout the cooking, they were also learning English,” Demajo said. “We also had childcare provided as well.” The classes were so successful that JFS is looking at expanding the program.
But the greatest challenge facing new immigrants to Vancouver has been the city’s housing shortage. Residential vacancy rates, which now stand at less than 1%, and the disproportionate cost of rental apartments have made it harder to find housing.
JFS settlement worker Tanya Finkelshtein helps connect new immigrants with “welcome circles” of volunteers that can help get them settled. “Housing is the number one problem in the Great Vancouver area, especially for newcomers. We [are] able to support some of our clients, but it is a serious issue,” said Finkelshtein, who works with about 70 Ukrainian families in JFS’s settlement program.
Affordable housing is key to creating adequate living conditions, including suitable employment.
“We have a family that was initially living outside of Vancouver,” Demajo said by way of example. The family’s efforts to connect with the Vancouver Jewish community were hampered by distance, as was their effort to find suitable employment. By connecting them with Tikva Housing and Temple Sholom Synagogue’s volunteer network, JFS was able to help the family resettle closer to employment opportunities and Jewish community programs. Tikva has since set aside two other units for JFS’s resettlement program.
But the search for housing continues to be a problem for new arrivals, so Demajo reached out to a property management company with well-known connections in the Jewish community. Shannon Gorski, whose family owns Belmont Properties, said JFS was looking for a couple of apartments that could provide temporary housing for Ukrainian immigrants. Gorski, who also serves on the JFS board and is the managing director of the Betty Averbach Foundation, reached out to Belmont’s board of directors “and then I learned … that they had been approached by someone in the rental world, Bob Rennie, and they had already stepped up to the plate.” Gorski said the board agreed to provide four units free of charge for four months.
The offer couldn’t have come at a better time for Alexander and Katrina Zubrys, who had been living out of a hotel since arriving from Kherson. The 1,200-square-foot apartment meant the couple could enrol their two children in a Jewish day school close by.
“The school is located 10 minutes from our house,” said Alexander, who acknowledged that, for his 5-year-old son Artem, “the biggest problem is English.” With the school’s help, Alexander said Artem and Sophie, 13, are adapting to their new surroundings and new language.
According to Gorski, the Zubrys family is the only one so far to request temporary housing from Belmont. “My concern is there are so many other families out there that don’t know that the Jewish community is here to help them,” she said. Thus, the challenge isn’t just finding available housing for current clients, but getting the word out to those arriving who don’t know who or how to ask for help.
As for finding new housing for the program, Gorski encourages other companies to get involved. “We are proud to be able to help the Zubrys family and we would like to help other families once identified,” she said. “And we challenge other property management families to step up as well.”
She is confident that, once alerted that Belmont Properties has donated temporary accommodations to the program, other property owners “would answer the call. I have no doubt that they would.”
Demajo said the settlement program wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without the assistance of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, which sent out an emergency appeal to the community to fund the project.
“Our community and our Federation have a history of responding quickly and generously whenever and wherever help is needed and we can be incredibly proud of the way our community responded to the crisis in Ukraine,” said Federation chief executive officer Ezra Shanken. “We didn’t spring into action the day the war broke out – we work year-round building communities and partnerships around the world and here at home so that we have the systems in place to make an impact.”
Demajo said Temple Sholom and Congregation Schara Tzedeck are playing a role in supporting new immigrants. Both run their own programs and have collaborated with JFS to make sure new arrivals are supported, she said.
“We continue to support these families now, helping some find vehicles, others looking for new jobs,” said Temple Sholom’s Rabbi Dan Moskovitz.
For the Zubrys family, the support system is what made the 9,100-kilometre migration possible. It’s Gorski’s “big heart” and the help of JFS and other volunteers that made it possible to finally find a new home, said Alexander.
For information about how to offer temporary housing and other help for Ukrainian refugees, contact Tanya Finkelshtein at 604-257-5151.
Jan Lee is an award-winning editorial writer whose articles and op-eds have been published in B’nai B’rith Magazine, Voices of Conservative and Masorti Judaism and Baltimore Jewish Times, as well as a number of business, environmental and travel publications. Her blog can be found at multiculturaljew.polestarpassages.com.