Tears, hugs and joy in St. John’s, NL as 166 Ukrainian refugees arrive from Poland

Nine-year-old Zoriana Shapoval had barely turned the corner at St. John’s International Airport on Monday night when she saw her older sister Sofiia Shapoval waiting in the crowd and ran straight into her outstretched arms.

Zoriana and her mother, Natalia Shapoval, were among 166 Ukrainian refugees who had just arrived in Newfoundland aboard a plane chartered by the provincial government. Sofiia Shapoval is a genetics student at Memorial University in St. John’s and said it was a huge relief to have her family near her in Canada after months of fear and uncertainty.

“It feels so good,” said Sofiia Shapoval. “You don’t know where your family is or how you can help them, because they are on the other side of the world.”

The plane arrived Monday night from Poland, where the Newfoundland and Labrador government has set up a satellite office to help Ukrainians fleeing Russian attacks on their homeland resettle in Canada’s easternmost province. People who work there have been handing out flyers, meeting with Ukrainians and helping them get paperwork in order. They chartered two buses to transport the 166 passengers on Monday’s flight from Warsaw to Katowice airport, which is some 300 kilometers away.

Immigration Minister Gerry Byrne and Prime Minister Andrew Furey beamed Monday night as they shook hands with Ukrainians entering through gates flanked by the country’s blue and yellow flags.

A crowd of a few dozen people erupted in cheers and applause each time one walked through the curtained entrance. People waved Ukrainian flags and held welcome signs, written in both English and Ukrainian. Shapoval, his mother and his sister stood to the side, hugging each other tightly and holding up their phones to take selfies, their smiles wide and cheerful.

The provincial government kept the flight’s landing time a secret, so the welcome wasn’t too overwhelming for the travel-weary refugees.

Byrne says Monday night’s flight is the first government-chartered plane to bring Ukrainian refugees to Canada. Newfoundland and Labrador’s successful efforts to transport and welcome refugees, from the office in Warsaw to the generous residents on the ground offering whatever they can, is now the “gold standard” for other provinces and countries, he said in a previous interview. Monday.

Stanislav, a tall 28-year-old Ukrainian, was one of the first off the flight. He smiled and laughed, telling reporters to call him Stan. The engineer said he is headed to the small town of Baie Verte, about 600 kilometers from St. John’s, where there are jobs in the local mining industry.

“I am very worried about my father, who is now an officer,” he said. “No one in my family is in occupied territory, but of course … everyone is worried that tomorrow the Russians will (cause) violence.”

Marjorie Williams was in the crowd holding a brightly colored welcome sign. She was hoping to meet a woman who would live in her apartment, after the two met through a local Facebook group whose goal was to unite Ukrainians coming to Newfoundland with locals offering housing, supplies and jobs.

“I’m very excited,” Williams said. “Today I thought to myself, ‘I think he might be a little crazy, but…why not?’

Everyone who got off the plane in St. John’s on Monday night had a place to stay, either through volunteers like Williams or through more official efforts, like those run by the province’s Association of New Canadians.

“This is a big deal right now, it’s unbelievable,” said Megan Morris, executive director of the association, who was at the airport helping to coordinate a team of volunteers who had a school bus waiting to take refugees where they needed to go. . Go.

There has been a lot of effort to support the government’s initiative to bring Ukrainians to the province, he said, but many of those involved already had experience: Last October, the province received more than 100 refugees from Afghanistan, for whom Morris’s team helped coordinate travel, supplies, and places to stay.

Adilya Dragan has also volunteered behind the scenes, putting together boxes of clothes, shoes, toiletries, and even dishes for everyone on the plane. The 32-year-old Russian lives outside of St. John’s and moderates a Facebook group for Newfoundlanders who want to help Ukrainians.

Several rooms in his house are filled with mounds of donated supplies, and he has set up public drop-off sites where more things are waiting, Dragan said in a recent interview.

“The people are great here,” he said. “I love Newfoundlanders; they are the best people. You can’t find these people anywhere else in the world.”

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