Saskatoon

Ukrainians face challenges with visa applications to Canada, among other barriers

The process to bring Ukrainian families to Canada was supposed to be fast and efficient, but Ukrainian applicants and their relatives in Canada say the visa applications are cumbersome and appointments for biometrics are unavailable.

'It took us 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. to fill visa applications for 4 people,' says a family in Ukraine

Ukrainians help an elderly woman cross the rail tracks to board a train from Lviv to Poland at the Lviv central rail station. (Matthew Hatcher/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)

Tetiana Chudiiovych fled Kyiv shortly after the Russian invasion and made her way to safety in Italy with her two children. Now, they await their visas to come to Canada.

"I am bringing with me two children, three suitcases and a teddy bear to Saskatoon. That's all," the 38-year-old said.

"When I left Ukraine, I didn't think about documents like birth certificates because my aim was to save my children."

Chudiiovych already has a visitor visa to Canada valid until 2029 and even booked a flight for March 17.

Tetiana Chudiiovych, right, with Marlene Bodnar, centre, in her last visit to Canada in 2019. (Submitted by Marlene Bodnar)

On the other side of the Atlantic ocean, in Saskatoon, her friend Marlene Bodnar was excited for their arrival. But Chudiiovych was not allowed to board the flight, as her daughter and son did not have visas.

"Hungary and France don't need any other documents or visas. It was special for Canada to have visas for children," she said. 

The mother applied for visas for her children under the recently announced Canada-Ukraine authorization for emergency travel on March 18, but said the process was "a roller-coaster," as it took three hours to fill one form.

"There were a lot of questions on forms. When you're stressed, you're more scared to fill out something incorrectly," she said. "Questions like where have you been for the past five years aren't important for refugees."

Tetiana Chudiiovych hugs Marlene Bodnar in this picture from when Bodnar visited Ukraine in 2018. (Submitted by Marlene Bodnar)

Bodnar has already prepared a room in her house for the family's arrival. The two met through church associations in 2015 and have visited one another since then. Chudiiovych last stayed at Bodnar's home in Montgomery in 2019.

"They're not visitors. This is their home. Tetiana is like a daughter to me and her children like my grandkids," Bodnar said.

Chudiiovych said it was a hard decision for her and her husband, who is a priest in Ukraine and has decided to stay, to part ways, but it was for the children's well-being.

"When we were in Kyiv, our children were in the cellars. We had no good sleep. My children were afraid to close their eyes," she said. "Ukraine is my motherland but Saskatoon will be the second home."

Chudiiovych said a month ago she had her goals for the next decade planned, but now just wishes to return to her motherland eventually.

Biometric appointments causing delay

Maryana Marko and Iryna Tokova are both working on getting to Canada. Each of them has a parent and two sons to bring along. Both of their husbands are staying in Ukraine.

The two friends have submitted their visa applications and received biometric invitations, but booking appointments online is challenging.

"The online system doesn't show any date available for this month or even April," Marko said.

Marko and Tokova connected with CBC News from Mostyska in Western Ukraine, close to the Poland border, with the help of a translator.

"We'll have to go to Warsaw to submit the biometrics. We hope we get an appointment before May," Marko said.

Maryana Marko said she is worried for her children’s mental health as they remain surrounded in the harsh reality of a war. (Submitted by Maryana Marko)

The young mothers are even considering going to a biometric service point without an appointment, but Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) advises against it. 

In an email, IRCC said the department is closely monitoring capacity at the Visa Application Centres (VAC) and additional IRCC staff have been deployed. IRCC said it has already received more than 20,000 applications.

"Additional biometric capacity has been added to the Visa Application network and missions in Warsaw, as well as to Vienna and Bucharest," the department said in a statement. 

"We have been working to set up additional VACs and biometrics collection locations in Europe as demand requires. Applicants are encouraged to access the VAC website for booking appointments and not to show up without an appointment at Canadian missions or embassies."

IRCC said the biometrics instruction letters will not expire after 30 days.

The wait is an added trouble to the cumbersome application process, Marko said.

"It took us each 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. to fill applications for four people. The most difficult part is to fill the information about travel and work experience," Marko said.

Tokova said questions like education history for their parents are too detailed to fill when they bear very little documentation on them.

Iryna Tokova is seen with her sons at a Taekwondo event in Odessa. She said the sacrifice to leave behind her husband in Ukraine and come to Saskatoon is nothing when compared to the well-being of her kids. (Submitted by Iryna Tokova)

Marko's two sons are five and 10, while Tokova's are eight and 10. Both mothers are concerned for their children's mental health.

"Our kids were scared when they heard sirens and had to hide in the basements. We've told them that Russia invaded Ukraine. We're trying to explain everything on the level a child can perceive," Marko said.

They keep the boys busy with sports and online education and try "to keep them away from the visuals on TV."

"We're aware of the challenges of coming to a new society, but our kids' mental health is a priority. We want a safe and peaceful environment for our children,"Marko said.

"We expect that when we come to Saskatoon, we will sleep without sirens."

Barriers compound

Olga Shmargun came to Canada from Ukraine in 2014 and now is trying to help 19 other Ukrainians, many of them children, to do the same. She knows the families personally from her old neighborhood, and from her university days.

The single mother of two works as a laser technician in Saskatoon and finds it difficult to find time to fill out applications.

"All these people are highly educated, having master's degrees or working as cancer doctors, but they don't know English," she said.

Although all IRCC's applications are only available in English and French, IRCC is recruiting people who are fluent in Ukrainian, the department said in a statement.

Olga Shmargun, mother of two boys in Saskatoon, said it is very difficult to apply for applications single-handedly as language and technological barriers exist. (Yelena Fedchenko-Shpitalova)

"My morning begins at 5 a.m. I check my WhatsApp if they all are safe, whether they are alive and survived the night. To submit one application, it takes me close to three to six hours depending on how many people are on the file," Shmargun said.

"All these applications are online. A majority of them have no access to the Internet or even any device."

Shmargun has already submitted four applications, with two others in progress. One such application is for her close friend, Julia Hvozdetskiy, whose kids are hospitalized in Germany after traveling three days to cross the border. 

Julia Hvozdetskiy is one of the 19 people Olga Shmargun is filling an application for. Shmargun said Hvozdetskiy's kids are hospitalized in Germany after they travelled three days to cross the border.  (Submitted by Olga Shmargun)

Shmargun  has three more applications to begin, including one for Alla Tympachuk, a pregnant woman in Kyiv expecting a child this week. Shmargun said once Tympachuk delivers the baby, she will drive to Poland and undergo the same process as others.

Alla Tympachuk is expecting a baby in Kyiv this week. Olga Shmargun is yet to submit her application, but is worried more about the support Tympachuk will be needing once she is here with her baby. (Submitted by Olga Shmargun)

Paul Morgun, pastor at Circle Drive Alliance Church, has been trying to bring a Ukrainian family that fled to Hungary. He faces similar roadblocks.

He said in Ukraine, citizens have internal passports equivalent to drivers licences and an international passport for travel.

"These two documents have different issue and expiration dates. The Ukrainian documents don't have the same kind of expiration date as western documents, so it creates errors on applications," he said. 

"There's a lot of information that gets lost in translation."

More support needed

Shmargun is worried about has started a fundraiser for plane tickets and other expenses the families might face.

"I need to find them places to live, close enough to schools and daycare for those with children," she said.

Valentyna Matyushenko, who works as an artistic director in Saskatoon, agrees. She is trying to bring 13 people, including her goddaughter, to Saskatoon. 

Valentyna Matyushenko is trying to bring 13 people to Saskatoon and said the newcomers would be in need of settlement and financial supports. (Submitted by Valentyna Matyushenko)

Matyushenko said it will be difficult to house them all.

"How will I stick 10 people using one washroom? We won't charge our kin rent but if they are staying somewhere else, what about those expenses?" she said.

Matyushenko will soon begin contacting schools about admitting new students. She said financial support from the government could better assist the newcomers. 

The Saskatchewan government has committed $335,000 in settlement support in an agreement with the Ukrainian Canadian Congress of Saskatchewan (UCC SK), but the funds will go to hiring dedicated community co-ordinators "to assist people arriving from the Ukraine and help co-ordinate offers of help and donations from Saskatchewan citizens," the Ministry of Immigration and Career Training said in a statement.

"We are prepared to provide the supports and services these newcomers will need. This will include health care, mental health services, education, childcare, and other critical supports," the statement read.

Petro Nakutnyy, co-chair of the UCC-SK Ukraine Support committee, said there has been overwhelming support from the community in Saskatchewan.

"We have received approximately 350 requests from across Saskatchewan from people who offered accommodation. Also, around 100 employers contacted us to offer employment for Ukrainians," he said.

Nakutnyy said their volunteers will assist newcomers in opening bank accounts, helping with documents around health and work, transportation and such.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Pratyush Dayal covers climate change, immigration and race and gender issues among general news for CBC News in Saskatchewan. He has previously written for the Globe and Mail, the Vancouver Sun, and the Tyee. He holds a master's degree in journalism from UBC and can be reached at pratyush.dayal@cbc.ca

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