‘It’s hard’: Ukrainian newcomers struggle to make ends meet in Canada

TORONTO — Sabina Abilova and Andrii Koziura sit down to dinner in their basement apartment, laptops open, looking for jobs that might help them pay next month’s rent.

The Ukrainian newcomers arrived in Toronto just a few weeks ago, seeking to escape the conflict at home, and have spent their savings coping with the city’s high cost of living.

“The prices here are quite high,” Abilova, 28, says in an interview. “If we don’t find work, we won’t be able to stay here for long.”

The cost of housing is proving to be one of the main problems for Ukrainian newcomers who arrive under a special federal program announced in March that allows them to work or study in Canada for three years.

Abilova and Koziura were vacationing in Argentina when Russia began invading Ukraine in February. The couple decided to apply to come to Canada as Abilova’s sister already lived in Toronto, having arrived as a student eight years ago.

Getting approved under the program was relatively easy, but getting information and support on things like housing, public transportation and employment has been difficult, Abilova says.

“In Ukraine we had a very good and normal life and now we have to look everywhere for help, ask for help, discounts and everything, and it’s not a good situation,” he says.

“It’s hard because I didn’t expect Canada to be like this.”

Abilova and Koziura now live in a two-bedroom basement in West Toronto with Abilova’s mother and 13-year-old brother, who already had visitor visas to Canada before the war began.

They pay $2,000 in rent a month and currently rely on their savings to pay their bills, Koziura says.

The couple applied for a $600 monthly social support payment from the Ontario government and a one-time $3,000 payment from the federal government while they looked for work, it says.

Koziura, 27, says he used to work as a software product manager in Ukraine and hopes to find a job in his field.

“Our initial plan was to come here, stay here for a few months and decide where we are going to stay, how easy it is to stay in Canada, and we still haven’t managed to find a job,” he says.

“The situation with the war is quite complicated. We don’t know when it ends. And we don’t know what our long-term plans are. Are we going to receive citizenship here… are we going to go home?”

Ihor Michalchyshyn, executive director of the Canadian Ukrainian Congress, says that housing is the number one challenge facing Ukrainian newcomers, especially in Ontario.

Federally funded refugee settlement agencies aren’t technically allowed to help Ukrainian newcomers with housing because those who arrive under the special program aren’t recognized as refugees, he says.

“They don’t have access to the same, let’s say, full suites or full services that a refugee from anywhere would have,” he says.

“We could call them refugees, (but) technically, legally they are not refugees in the eyes of government-funded agencies.”

His organization and the Ontario Council of Immigrant Serving Agencies wrote to Federal Immigration Minister Sean Fraser last month, asking him to allow settlement agencies to use federal funds to support housing costs for Ukrainian newcomers.

Michalchyshyn says his organization has also been lobbying for income support for Ukrainian newcomers.

A spokeswoman for Fraser says the federal government has a program that provides Ukrainian newcomers with one-time financial assistance of $3,000 per adult and $1,500 per child.

“These funds will help Ukrainian citizens and their families meet their basic needs, such as transportation and long-term housing, when they reach communities in Canada and find work,” Aidan Strickland wrote in a statement.

“We recognize that Canada’s major urban centers are currently facing difficulties obtaining temporary housing this summer, as well as housing challenges from both an affordability and availability standpoint.”

Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, says the special program for Ukrainians has the advantage of being open to an unlimited number of people, but lacks the support government-sponsored refugees typically receive.

“From a political perspective, it has the advantages of being really fast and open,” he says in an interview.

“The (Ukrainian) people may be, ‘Okay, fine, we’ll come to Canada and we’ll be able to meet all our needs,’ but they weren’t necessarily informed or realized that all they were getting was a job. permit and a visitor visa. They’re not getting a whole support system.”

Michalchyshyn of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress says the housing situation for Ukrainian newcomers is more challenging in Ontario than in other provinces. The median monthly rental price for a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto was $2,133 in June, Rentals.ca data showed, compared to $1,538 in Montreal and $1,669 in Halifax.

“Probably more than 60 percent of Ukrainians in Canada are coming to Toronto, to the GTA, and then… struggling to find housing of any kind,” he says.

Ukrainian community groups, including churches and community agencies and organizations, are trying to find host families, empty apartments and emergency shelter spaces, he says.

“There is very high demand and very low availability,” he says.

Ontario Labor Minister Monte McNaughton, who is responsible for immigration, says his department is working with other government departments and municipalities to support those Ukrainians.

“Certainly, it is a challenge,” he says in an interview.

“We are working with our municipal partners … to identify the housing stock so that these people will have a safe haven and a safe place here in Ontario.”

According to the federal government, 55,488 Ukrainians arrived in Canada between January 1 and June 26.

The government says it received 343,283 applications under the new program for Ukrainians between March 17 and June 28, with 146,461 approved.

– with files from Holly McKenzie-Sutter.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on July 10, 2022.


Conversations are the opinions of our readers and are subject to the Code of conduct. The Star does not endorse these views.

Leave a Comment