Woman fearing for family in Ukraine urges Canada to waive visa for those fleeing war

Narina Jabari, who has been trying to bring her family from Ukraine to Burlington, Ont., says bureaucratic red tape and Ottawa's decision not to allow visa-free travel have left many who are trying to escape Ukraine essentially stranded.

Federal government says program authorizing emergency travel on track for Thursday launch

Narina Jabari, second from the right, stands next to her twin brother Nauras and two childhood friends in this photo taken during a visit to Lviv, Ukraine. She's calling on Ottawa to speed up and simplify the process for refugees fleeing the Russian invasion to come to Canada. (Submitted by Narina Jabari)

Narina Jabari has watched the Russian invasion of Ukraine with a growing sense of panic, coupled with frustration that Canada isn't doing more to help those trying to flee the war reach safety.

For her, it hits home. The 30-year-old was born in Kyiv and has been working to bring her aunt, uncle and cousin from Ukraine to Burlington, Ont.

But Jabari said bureaucratic red tape and the federal government's decision not to allow visa-free travel have left many trying to escape essentially stranded.

Those in Canada who are trying to help Ukrainians are feeling trapped too, said Jabari.

"Right before bed, I check: 'OK, are cities still standing?'" she said.

When she wakes up, she checks again.

"It's always this panic, fear and suffocation."

On Tuesday, Russia stepped up its bombardment of Kyiv while thousands of civilians fled Mariupol along a humanitarian corridor in what was believed to be the biggest evacuation yet from the desperately besieged seaport. On the diplomatic front, another round of talks began between Russia and Ukraine. 

Also on Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked Canada for its support in his address to the House of Commons, but said much more needs to be done, including additional sanctions and a no-fly zone.

On March 3, Canadian Immigration Minister Sean Fraser announced plans to welcome an "unlimited number" of people to leave their war-torn country for Canada.

Part of that influx will come through an "expedited path" to permanent residency for Ukrainians with family in Canada.

The government is also creating a Canada-Ukraine Authorization For Emergency Travel program that will allow those accepted to work, live or study in Canada for up to two years.

WATCH | Fraser speaks to CBC's Power & Politics about plans to waive most visa requirements:

Feds waive most typical visa requirements for Ukrainians, but stop short of waiving visas completely

4 months ago
Duration 10:11
"We don't want to open the door for folks who might cause damage to our national security interest...and, it would have taken a couple months longer to implement a visa waiver," says Immigration Minister Sean Fraser on why the feds are not waiving visa requirements for Ukrainians.

Fraser said the aim was to have the application process open within two weeks, a countdown that's set to end Thursday.

"We're on track to meet that deadline," Marie-France Lalonde, the minister's parliamentary secretary, told CBC Metro Morning's Ismaila Alfa in an interview Tuesday morning.

"We've announced a new program that will cut through the red tape and certainly expedite the arrival to offer Ukrainians a safe harbour."

MP says government can't 'compromise' safety

Lalonde said 7,400 Ukranians have come to Canada since Jan. 1, but did not dispute that those people had already applied to immigrate here before the invasion began.

When asked how many Ukrainians had arrived since the Russian attack, she said she could not provide a specific number.

Lalonde also did not share a start date for the emergency travel program, saying only it would be launched "in the coming days."

Responding to calls for visa-free travel, the parliamentary secretary said the government's plan balances speed with safety concerns.

"What we've designed gets us to that goal, but in a way that doesn't create unintended consequences," she said.

Narina Jabari, second from the right, shared this childhood photo from a visit to Kosiv, the Ukrainian city where her aunt, uncle and cousin are sheltering. She says it shows friends who are today struggling to access medication or defend their country from the Russian invasion. (Submitted by Narina Jabari)

"We cannot compromise on the safety and security of Canadians as well as Ukrainians who Canada will welcome."

The government's plan waives most of the typical visa requirements, but background screening and biometrics, such as fingerprints, will still need to be supplied before leaving for Canada.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said it has set up visa application centres in neighbouring countries and can collect biometrics at its centre in Warsaw, with the possibility of sending kits to Vienna and Bucharest too as backup.

But Jabari said she's had trouble finding the visa application forms from her home in Canada, even with steady access to the internet and other basic tools someone fleeing an invasion wouldn't have.

"The expectation from immigration Canada, that somehow a refugee or someone fleeing is able to get all of these documents when government buildings, hospitals, banks are either bombed or closed … is completely unrealistic," she said during an interview with CBC's Metro Morning.

Ontario woman wants Canada to 'open the door'

Jabari described Canada's response as "disappointing," noting it's not clear how long the application process will take and many Ukrainians can't afford to be stranded in Europe.

Her family members are sheltering in Kosiv, a city in western Ukraine, and relatively safe — though air sirens sound daily and there has been bombing nearby, she said.

Half of her family is Syrian, she said. They've been through something similar during conflict there, she said, and the application process was also complicated.

Narina Jabari sits with members of her family outside their home in Ukraine. (Submitted by Narina Jabari)

She pointed to European Union countries that have waived the need for a visa and asked why Canada hasn't done the same.

"I just want immigration to know that yes, they might be streamlining, simplifying immigration processes, but nothing will justify the fact that these visa processes just should be dropped," she said.

"When someone needs help you open the door. That's the very first thing you do ... and we haven't done that."

With files from Metro Morning and John Paul Tasker