Former Canadian Forces member Janice Voth, left, shows the “Victory” bracelets she made to newcomers Anastasiia Kuzmenko and Oksana and Kateryna Mosiichuk. The four women were attending the opening of Café Ukraine when it started operating last June. PHOTO BY BRUCE DEACHMAN /Postmedia
Café Ukraine, a volunteer-run, drop-in resource centre for Ukrainian immigrants in Ottawa, has been “a resounding success” in the year since Russia’s invasion of the country, according to one of its organizers.
Yaroslav Baran is on the board of directors of the Canada-Ukraine Foundation and is an organizer with Café Ukraine, which began helping Ukrainian newcomers settle in the community when it opened in June 2022, just a few months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022.
It operates as both a café and a place for those who need it to share information on social services, jobs, housing “and anything else they need to get accustomed to their new lives,” Baran said.
“We’ve had (tens of thousands) of people come through and the feedback we consistently get is ‘thank you, this is exactly what we needed. The café means a lot (to us) and it’s really changed our experience (in Canada),’” Baran said.
Baran said the café is still welcoming hundreds of people each week and he sees a nice mix of new and returning visitors as well as Ukrainian volunteers who were among the first few waves of people who moved to Ottawa.
It began as a hangout spot where people could share information like how they got their job, driver’s licence or social insurance number, which was a successful endeavour. The café has since grown to host special events, guest lectures and workshops such as an English-as-a-second-language club that meets once per week. It also hosts movie nights and other more casual events.
Baran said that last year, as more Ukrainians began moving to Ottawa, some discovered there was a missing social link in their lives.
“We realized what was missing was a place that allows people to share experiences and meet other people who are experiencing the same thing they are,” Baran said.
In the time since Russia invaded Ukraine one year ago, Father Taras Kinash of the local Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Ukrainian Orthodox church said the way it helps Ukrainians in need has evolved.
“As time has gone on, their needs and goals have changed,” Kinash said.
“That’s why we’re more focused on helping them look for jobs and offering generous psychological and mental health support,” he said. “So we don’t focus on donations and charity as much anymore.”
Kinash, with his wife and their two children, arrived in Ottawa last Spring. The Byron Avenue church’s parish council, supported by the Ukrainian Embassy in Canada, secured special permission for him and his family to leave Ukraine.
The church had been without a priest since the previous pastor died suddenly and unexpectedly the year prior and Kinash conducted his first service at the church the very next day after his arrival.
Kinash said last spring and summer, hundreds of Ukrainians needed humanitarian aid every day from the church. Even with more people still coming, he said the amount of people it’s helped each day in the past few months has fallen slightly.
He attributed this trend to the majority of the first few waves of newcomers who arrived in Ottawa having already established themselves and many of the people who’ve come recently needing less help than they would have in the earlier days post-invasion. That’s because they are planning ahead and following the experience and advice of those who came before them.
Baran said he has noticed a slight decrease in donations in recent months and fewer people paying attention to the ongoing war, but said that was not unexpected.
“In any crisis, there is a certain lifecycle. Immediately there is shock and horror and people want to volunteer and donate — and they did, which is great,” Baran said.
“As more waves of newcomers would arrive, more new people were getting involved,” Baran said.
The dip in attention has created a bit of a challenge in finding new volunteers and new donors, but Baran said there are always people willing to help.
Kinash noted as the one-year anniversary of the invasion approached, people began paying more attention to Ukrainians who still need help. The church has received more phone calls from people looking to volunteer their time, donate money or host a Ukranian family.
Donations were higher when the war started, dropped a bit in the fall of 2022, but in the last two months or so have picked back up, according to Kinash.
“New people are willing to (provide) financial support for the families, or donations for essentials like clothing, food and furniture, and (there has been) a steady number of people who want to volunteer their time or host a newcomer family,” Kinash said.
Kinash said many of the newcomers he’s spoken to are thankful and happy to feel supported by the Ottawa community. “They are very grateful and ready to feel good in this country,” he said.
In the case of Café Ukraine, Baran said that anytime someone makes a connection or meets another person to expand their social network, even if the cafe is nearly empty, it’s worthwhile because it’s doing its job: helping to connect and empower people who are living an experience many others might not even be able to imagine.