Ukrainians stranded at Pearson Airport forced to rely on the kindness of strangers on social media

A lack of information from the federal government has forced some Ukrainians fleeing the war to turn to social media for help when they land at Toronto's Pearson Airport.

Federal government says details on how Ukrainians can access more support coming soon

Jane and Joe Lewis opened their home to 34-year-old Alexey, centre, who found himself stuck at Toronto Pearson Airport after fleeing the war in Ukraine. (Submitted by Jane Lewis)

When Alexey heard Canada was offering short-term accommodations and financial assistance to Ukrainians fleeing the war in their country — he decided to go.

The 34-year-old's apartment in Kyiv was bombed, so he arrived at Toronto Pearson Airport with just one suitcase and two backpacks. CBC News agreed not to use his full name, as he fears for the safety of his family back in Ukraine.

Alexey quickly learned getting short-term support in Canada wasn't a simple process. He connected with a border officer and Red Cross volunteers but ended up having to turn to social media through another Ukrainian family also stuck at the airport.

"I was very stressed at this moment," said Alexey, who told CBC News many people he called wouldn't help him.

"Most of them wouldn't take single men, just women or women with children," he explained. Alexey says he was able to leave Ukraine as a young single male because he has a physical disability.

As Ukrainians continue fleeing the war, there have been more than 200,000 applications to stay in this country as temporary residents, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). But some Ukrainians who've landed here say they don't have access to the resources they thought they would. IRCC says it will provide details on how to access this support soon. But in the meantime, Canadian citizens who are helping them say it's up to social media and the kindness of strangers to ensure people aren't stranded, and that's not sustainable.

Alexey, right, slept on Douglas Scandrett's couch last week upon his arrival in Toronto because he says he had nowhere else to go. (Submitted by Alexey)

Douglas Scandrett says he was already in bed when he saw an urgent post on the Facebook group titled  "Canada Hosts Ukraine" asking for someone to pick up Alexey at the airport.

"The poor guy was waiting at arrivals in the taxi area and he's got nowhere to go," Scandrett explained.

The Torontonian was in the group to help with editing resumes for Ukrainians looking for work in Canada. But he observed that people needing airport pickups and accommodations was not uncommon. 

"This is not a one-off situation; this is happening every single day," Scandrett said, adding it's often late at night when the urgent requests are posted.

"Now what we're seeing is because these people are so desperate for anywhere to stay, a lot of them consider lying about their vaccine status so they'll get two weeks in a quarantine hotel — that's also had to be a survival instinct for them."

Scandrett went back to social media to help Alexey find a place to stay longer term, since he only had a couch to offer. Alexey is now settled in Waterford, Ont., about 130 kilometres southwest of Toronto, with a retired couple in their 70s.

Details to come, IRCC says

In an emailed statement to CBC News, IRCC outlines the Canada-Ukraine authorization for emergency travel.

"This new measure streamlines current visa and travel requirements, eliminates most application and processing fees, and offers accelerated, prioritized processing," the statement said. On its website, the department says of the 204,000 applications for temporary residence it has received as of May 4, almost 91,500 have been approved.

IRCC says it's also offering temporary federal support to help Ukrainians settle in their new communities, including language training and help enrolling children in school.

The government's response also notes the additional measures, first announced April 9, which included short-term income support and temporary hotel accommodation. 

"Details on how eligible Ukrainians and their families can access the program will be made available soon."

In a statement, the City of Toronto says the situation is evolving quickly, and it's working closely with the federal and provincial governments as well as community agencies to identify issues as they emerge and deal with the influx of Ukrainian refugees.

"On April 6, city council approved the COVID-19 Shelter Transition and Relocation Plan Update, which outlined plans to create a specific refugee shelter sector that is now operating parallel to the existing base shelter system," the statement said. 

The city adds that the refugees can get settlement supports through the Ukrainian Canadian Immigrant Aid Society and Ukrainian Canadian Social Services.

For its part, the Red Cross says it's providing reception, registration information and referrals to people arriving in Canada from Ukraine. 

'Stepping up to the plate'

Meanwhile, Alexey is adjusting to life in Waterford with Joe and Jane Lewis, who say they wanted to host simply because it's the right thing to do.

"Its terrible what's happening there; can you imagine what it would be like if someone started bombing us?" Joe Lewis said.

The couple has helped Alexey get a social insurance number, a health card and a bit of money from social services. They say the plan next week is to help him open a bank account and start looking for a job in his field, computer science.

"This would all be very challenging to navigate without help," Lewis said.

He says while they've been happy to open their home to Alexey, he believes the details on how to get the supports he needs should have been available right away.

"It would be nice if the government did what they said they were going to do. You wouldn't believe how many Canadians are stepping up to the plate."

For Alexey, the act of kindness is not lost on him.

"I know that on our planet we have kind people, but I didn't know we had a lot of them," he said.

"I am so thankful for Jane and Joe that they helped me, because it's quite difficult to make it by myself."


Talia Ricci is a TV, radio and web reporter at CBC Toronto. She enjoys covering offbeat human interest stories and exposing social justice issues. Talia is also an avid traveller and photographer. Her photography has appeared in various publications and exhibits. She lives in Toronto's east end where she enjoys reading and going on long walks to discover the beauty in the city.