How a Ukrainian refugee is helping children fleeing Russian invasion to settle in Manitoba

Neli Dubova fled her home in Odesa at the start of the Russian invasion. Now she's in Winnipeg, helping kids from her home country to navigate the Canadian educational system.

Neli Dubova works as facilitator with program to transition kids into public schools

Neli Dubova interacts with two students in the Introduction to Canadian Education program at NEEDS Inc. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Neli Dubova is excited to be teaching Ukrainian children who come to Manitoba as a result of war about Canadian schools. 

A Ukrainian refugee herself, Dubova moved to another country temporarily when she was a child.  She says she remembers how hard it was for her even though she knew the language and culture. 

"I was just dropped in the school and I was so stressed, like really very stressed," she said. 

Dubova, who came to Winnipeg in April, is now a facilitator assistant in the Introduction to Canadian Education program, offered by Newcomers Employment and Education Services, also known as NEEDS. 

The program has been around for a decade but is expected to be utilized a lot more in the coming months to help an influx of Ukrainian refugees to settle. 

On Monday, a charter flight with more than 300 Ukrainians came to Winnipeg under the Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel program. Many of them were children. 

Dubova says she understands what its like to be dropped into a new school in a new culture. She says that's why she enjoys helping refugee children to adjust. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Dubova fled Odesa on Feb. 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine. 

"I heard a bomb being in the city and which scared me a lot. So till noon, I understood that I could not sleep in the night. And I decided to leave Ukraine," she said. 

Her background is in business administration but she has worked with kids before, as a volunteer at and co-ordinator for children's camps. 

When she came to Winnipeg, she volunteered at NEEDS and says she really liked the place. Weeks later, she now works there. 

"I don't have language barriers, so it's much easier for me. I just talk to people … I don't feel this intercultural barrier. But children, they are different," Dubova said.   

She says that's why programs like the one she helps to teach are important. 

"They need to understand the culture. They need to understand the system. So when they move further, they will not [be] lost like [they] don't know what to do," she said. 

Many adjustments

For no charge, newcomer and refugee children are taught about what the Canadian school experience is like. 

Kirby Borgardt, the director of operations and student workers in schools, explained that the program helps to prepare kids for transitioning into public schools.

"Our goal is to provide information and orientation so that the students … have some knowledge in terms of what the expectations are in Canada," Borgardt said

Borgardt says the Introduction to Canadian Education program is just one of the programs offered to youth at NEEDS Inc. She says it's just one of the many agencies in Manitoba that are helping Ukrainian and other refugees to settle. (Andrew Wildes/CBC)

Students are taught about the Canadian school system, how to keep themselves safe in Winnipeg, community resources as well as employment opportunities. 

During the class on Thursday, the teacher explained to students that in Canada, students will go from elementary school to middle school and then high school. 

The information caused one student to raise his hand and share. 

"In Ukraine, we have one school from Grade 1 to 12," he said. 

Borgardt says there is also an employment program for older youth, up to the age of 21.

"So we are noticing that a lot of the older youth are doing very well academically and some also have pretty good language skills," she said. 

"Bridging them to employment will likely not be very challenging because they have the language skills."

Volunteers needed

The federal government launched the Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel program on March 17. 

As of May 18 more than 112,000 applicants had been approved from more than 241,000 applications. 

The bulk of the approved applicants have not yet come to Canada. As of May 15, only 32,000 Ukrainian citizens have arrived in Canada since Jan. 1. 

It's not yet known how many of those coming to Canada will choose to settle in Manitoba. 

In addition to offering its own services, NEEDS is tasked with volunteer management for the City of Winnipeg. 

Borgardt says more volunteers are urgently needed to transport the newcomers to job interviews and other important appointments. 

There is also a present need for translation services. Then in the horizon, a plethora of needs related to youth and others. 

"Long-term you're going to see things like youth programming, family programs, conversation circles, employment support, so there is a wide scope of volunteer needs to support their integration into our communities," she said. 

WATCH | How a recent refugee from Ukraine is helping refugee children to settle:

Refugee helping to teach Ukrainian kids about school system in Manitoba

1 year ago
Duration 2:30
Neli Dubova fled her home in Odesa at the start of the Russian invasion. Now she's in Winnipeg, helping kids from her home country to navigate the Canadian educational system.


Andrew Wildes is a reporter at CBC in Manitoba. You can reach him at