Refugees in limbo: Ukrainians bound for Canada facing delays

Olena Oliinyk and her family are hoping to wait out the war in Canada, but their future remains uncertain.

A family split by war is dealing with holdups as it awaits resettlement in the Rockies

Olena Oliinyk with her daughters Maryna, 10, and Yuliia, 8. (Submitted by Olena Oliinyk)

Olena Oliinyk decided to flee Ukraine five days after the Russian invasion began. 

She answered a call from her family and was given a choice: stay or run.

As the fighting grew closer to her home city of Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi, Oliinyk's sister-in-law Natalia Krasovskaya had decided abruptly that it was time for them to leave.

The women fled together, along with Oliinyk's mother and their four young children.

Oliinyk and her family are hoping to wait out the war in Canada, but their future remains in limbo. Delays with visa paperwork have kept them in Poland.

Quickly resettling Ukrainian refugees has proved a challenge for the federal government. 

A new visa system is facing backlogs and some Ukrainian families say they are running into issues with the systems set up to help them build a new life in Canada.

'Waiting and hoping'

Leaving Ukraine was the only choice she could make, Oliinyk, 38, told CBC in an interview from Poland.

She didn't want to leave her husband and her brother behind but was terrified by the thought of her daughters, ages 8 and 10, living in a war zone.

Hours spent in dusty underground shelters had left her eldest sick and covered in hives.

"She asked me all the time, 'Mommy, when will it finish? Momma, when, when?'

"I couldn't stand with this so we decided to leave."

Olena Oliinyk (far right) and her family are hoping to wait out the war in Canada but remain in Poland as they wait for their visa applications to be approved. (Submitted by Olena Oliinyk)

The family spent three days on the road, snaking their way through Moldova, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia as they joined a crush of refugees bound for Poland.

Oliinyk is among a growing number of Ukrainians struggling in their efforts to enter Canada despite promises from Ottawa that it will expedite immigration applications for refugees fleeing Russian violence and resettle as many of the displaced as it can.

The family of seven applied to enter Canada nearly a month ago but Oliinyk and her daughters' applications remain unanswered. 

Oliinyk said she doesn't want her family split any further by war but they are eager to resettle. 

"I'm waiting and hoping," she said. "I'm ready to start from the beginning in my life." 

More than 10 million Ukrainians — one-quarter of the country's population — have been driven from their homes, including more than 4.7 million who have fled the country since Russia's invasion began Feb. 24. 

Canada has promised to resettle an unlimited number of refugees.

'These aren't file numbers' 

While there is a strong political will to help, the immigration system was unprepared to deal with the mounting humanitarian crisis, said Toronto-based immigration lawyer Ravi Jain. 

A massive backlog of refugee applications has been piling up for years, he said.

"These aren't file numbers," Jain said. "These are real people. And a lot of us who deal with them on a day-to-day basis, we're frustrated and we're fed up because we're seeing the pain they're going through." 

COVID-19 put serious pressure on the system, which was further stressed by efforts to bring Afghan refugees to Canada, Jain said.

Processing centres have been left critically understaffed during the pandemic, he said. 

"This is what has created this crisis," he said.

"The numbers are higher but they're not an excuse for the whole system to be ground to a halt." 

Oliinyk and her family have been waiting for an answer for weeks.

They have applied to enter Canada through the recently announced special measure Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel (CUAET). 

Under CUAET, Ukrainians can apply for a free visitor visa and open work permits, and may be allowed to stay in Canada for three years.

The federal government says most applications for the program will be processed within 14 days.

I hope they will have good life because they deserve it. They deserve to live not in the war.-Olena Oliinyk

Oliinyk and her family applied on March 29 and submitted their biometrics information, at the Ukrainian embassy in Warsaw.

She doesn't know why her application has gone unanswered but she is eager to resettle in the Rockies, where Mike Widell has offered a place to stay in his home in the Robson Valley. 

The placement was made through a grassroots relief effort based in Jasper, Alta., helping to connect dozens of refugees with homes and offers of employment.

Widell said he is eager to help and remains optimistic the family will be granted approval soon. 

Opening his home to the family is a way to honour his own family history, he said. His late mother came to Canada in the 1940s after escaping the Russian Revolution as a young girl.

"That's why I wanted to do it, to pay it forward," he said. 

Oliinyk said she feels thankful, and optimistic about the future she can provide her daughters.

"I have children. I hope they will have good life because they deserve it," she said. "They deserve to live not in the war."


Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.