Quebecers step up to open their homes to Ukrainian refugees

As the federal and provincial governments work out how to streamline visa applications from Ukrainians fleeing warfare, a Quebec City lawyer is gathering names of Canadians willing to host refugees. Nearly 200 have stepped up so far.

Lawyer Alexandre Dufresne set up Facebook group to organize Canadians ready to host those fleeing war

Children look out from a carriage window as a train prepares to depart from Lviv, western Ukraine, en route to the town of Uzhhorod near the border with Slovakia Thursday. More than a million people have fled since the Russian invasion started Feb. 24 (Daniel Leal/AFP/Getty Images)

As the federal and provincial governments work out how to streamline visa applications from Ukrainians fleeing warfare, a Quebec City lawyer has already gathered nearly 200 names of Canadians willing to host refugees in their homes.

Alexandre Dufresne said he was unnerved by the barrage of images on the news of ever-escalating Russian attacks on Ukraine.

Dufresne, who has no personal connection to the country, said he figured the best way he could help would be to provide a temporary home to refugees once they find their way to Canada.

He searched for hosting initiatives on Facebook, and when he didn't find any, decided to create a group himself. 

"I thought, 'If nobody did it, well, I should,'" Dufresne said in a video call from his home office — one of the rooms he says he's willing to give up to refugees.

Alexandre Dufresne, a Quebec City lawyer, created the Facebook group 'Host your Ukrainian refugees,' encouraging people to welcome into their homes Ukrainians fleeing the war. (CBC)

He said his home has several spare rooms and a renovated basement, so with a few inflatable mattresses, he could accommodate as many as 16 people.

While Dufresne's effort is aimed at rallying private citizens, local organizations, churches and municipal politicians are also preparing for the imminent arrival of refugees from Ukraine, where the humanitarian crisis appears to get worse by the hour.

This is one of the rooms in Alexandre Dufresne's spacious home, which he says is big enough to accommodate up to 16 people. (Submitted by Alexandre Dufresne)

Just over a week into the conflict, more than one million people have fled the country, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said he expects millions more will follow unless the fighting stops immediately.

There appeared to be no sign of that Thursday, as Russian forces moved in to take control of more Ukrainian cities.

Bigger than 'Russia vs. Ukraine'

Against that backdrop, Dufresne created the group, called "Host your Ukrainian refugees."

"I just felt we were dealing with something serious here," Dufresne said. "I am afraid of what could happen with this war. I don't think it's Russia versus Ukraine. It's bigger than that." 

Within a short time of the creation of Dufresne's group, 30 people in his personal network had volunteered. Since the French-language newspaper Journal de Montréal wrote about the initiative Wednesday, Dufresne says the offers have been pouring in. 

Refugees from Ukraine are seen as they arrive at the Polish-Ukrainian border crossing in Kroscienko, Poland, on Thursday. (Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images)

This morning, more than 120 people had signed up on an online form he created to manage the requests as they began to multiply. 

Most of them are from Quebec, Dufresne said, but there are also people from Manitoba, Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Dufresne said he is looking for help to manage the group and trying to find out whether people would be willing to get together to sponsor refugees.

Canada to accept 'unlimited number'

Pierrefonds resident Alexandrine Gagnon said she jumped at the opportunity when she heard about it. 

"I don't have a big place. We live in a [two-bedroom] condo, but those people are really suffering right now, and if we can help them just a little bit, we're super glad to do it," Gagnon said on a video call, gesturing to the pull-out grey sectional couch in her living room. 

She said she was willing to host them for several weeks or even months.

"I think Canada is one of the best places for them to come, at least to pass this horrible time. So I hope the government does a bit more," Gagnon said. 

Alexandrine Gagnon, who lives in Pierrefonds in Montreal's West Island, says she only has a two-bedroom condo but is ready to welcome two people. (CBC)

Under a new emergency travel program announced by federal Immigration Minister Sean Fraser Thursday, Canada will accept an "unlimited number" of Ukrainians fleeing their war-torn country. 

Fraser also announced the government is introducing an "expedited path" to permanent residency for Ukrainians with family in Canada. 

Fraser said the government is waiving most visa requirements, but applicants will still need to supply biometrics and undergo a background screening process — in part to help prevent pro-Russia Ukrainian citizens who have participated in war in the breakaway regions of the Donbas from "slipping through the cracks."

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and other critics are calling on the government to drop the visa requirement entirely, to allow all Ukrainians to travel to Canada unencumbered.

The Quebec government also announced Thursday a program to help people with family in Ukraine sponsor their relatives to bring them to Canada. The government is also committing to speeding up the processing of temporary immigration applications.

People fleeing war-torn Ukraine wait to get food, clothing and toiletries at the main railway station in Berlin Wednesday. (Hannibal Hanschke/Getty Images)

City called on to restore refugee committee 

In Montreal, the official opposition has asked Mayor Valérie Plante's administration to resurrect the co-ordination committee set up a few years ago to welcome Syrian refugees.

Ensemble Montréal Leader Aref Salem said he moved to Canada from Lebanon during the civil war and knows the challenges of having to flee one's home country. 

"When the community is ready to welcome these refugees, it's going to be easier for them. It's going to be easier for us, too," Salem said. He said Ensemble Montréal would table a motion with its request at a city council meeting later this month.

Aref Salem, the leader of the Montreal opposition party Ensemble Montréal, said the experience the city gained from the recent Syrian refugee crisis will help this time. (Radio-Canada)

Abdulla Daoud, the executive director of the non-profit organization The Refugee Centre, which helps settle newcomers in Montreal,  said volunteers are also preparing donation boxes for Ukrainian arrivals. 

"We're still accepting Afghan refugees, and we're still accepting Syrian refugees, and now we're going to have Ukrainian refugees," Daoud said, referring to the succession of migration crises caused by strife around the world. 

Dufresne said there are many ways Canadians can help, even if it's not opening their home to refugees.

"Teaching a language, providing jobs, social help. People will also need psychological support," Dufresne said. "So I would just invite Canadians in general to think of what skills they have and how they could be useful."

With files from Jennifer Yoon and John Paul Tasker