“You come here, you don’t expect people to help you — they just do.”

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In the back room of a hotel in Côte-des-Neiges last week, a Ukrainian mother and her two young children wandered through a donation centre, collecting items to help them start their lives over in Montreal.

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Yulia El Hilali arrived with her husband and the two children in mid-April after leaving Morocco, where they were staying when Russia invaded Ukraine. In the coming weeks, another daughter, who is still in Ukraine, is set to join them in the city.

“I can’t wait to see her here,” El Hilali said through volunteer Tatiana Romano, who translated from Russian to English.

El Hilali spent the morning browsing the center — made to look and feel like a store — in search of clothing and toys for her children. Anwar, just over a year and a half old, wandered around with a bottle of milk in one hand and a toy car in the other. Ella’s older sister, Yasmin, clutched a stuffed animal tightly to her chest as she played in a room filled with toys. It was the family’s third visit to the center since they arrived — the second since the money they brought to Canada ran out.

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“Every time I come here, the doors are open,” El Hilali said. “They’re not judging you, whether you were under fire, sitting in the basement in a bomb shelter — they will not ask you that. There is no paperwork to fill in, no qualifying parameters to meet. You come, and people will help you.”

“The effects of the war will linger for years,” says volunteer Tatiana Romano, left, embracing Yulia El Hilali at the Ukrainian Newcomers Center.
“The effects of the war will linger for years,” says volunteer Tatiana Romano, left, embracing Yulia El Hilali at the Ukrainian Newcomers Center. Photo by John Kenney /Montreal Gazette

the Ukrainian Newcomers Center operates out of a former restaurant in Hotel Terrasse Royale on Côte-des-Neiges Rd. In addition to providing food, clothing and other essentials to displaced Ukrainians, volunteers have been helping with jobs, housing, as well as psychological and legal services.

“We’re making sure whoever we’re recommending (to provide) jobs, for lodging, those people are screened, that we trust them,” said Romano, who is hosting about a dozen Ukrainians at home. “Because these are vulnerable people who don’t speak the language.”

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The immediate goal is to help those who have just stepped foot in the city. Long term, the plan is to become a charity that can send help back to Ukraine.

“The effects of the war will still linger for at least years,” Romano said. “And you will have children who will be without parents, whose fathers will pass away serving in the army.”

It’s hard to say exactly how many Ukrainians have arrived in the city since the war broke out. Quebec’s Immigration Ministry said a welcome kiosk at Trudeau airport helped 379 families — 620 people — April 1-28. As of May 5, the Labor Ministry had received 526 applications on behalf of 882 people for financial assistance. Romano, who is active in the network of Quebecers helping Ukrainians, estimates thousands are already here.

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Yasmin El Hilali clutches a stuffed animal at the Ukrainian Newcomers' Centre.
Yasmin El Hilali clutches a stuffed animal at the Ukrainian Newcomers’ Centre. Photo by John Kenney /Montreal Gazette

Those who have arrived so far are staying in emergency hotel accommodation provided by the province, or with family or friends, or with Quebecers they connected with through social media, according to the Ukrainian Canadian Congress. It said the City of Montreal has not yet vetted those who have signed up to host Ukrainians through UCCMontreal.caa process that involves a police check to ensure families are welcomed into a safe place.

“The City of Montreal… stepped up to the plate to figure out the process; they have their lawyers working on it right now,” said Michael Shwec, the president of the Quebec provincial council of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress. “What happens is the city is kind of protecting the mother who’s coming here, and protecting the family who’s receiving also. That’s the safe way of doing it, but it’s going to take longer.”

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Given the speed of government bureaucracy, Shwec said, things seem to be moving along quickly in Montreal.

But volunteers at the Ukrainian Newcomers Center say gaps in the response need to be addressed. Many services are available from various levels of government — but they don’t always match needs, they say.

As an example, the city has handed out free Société de transport de Montréal passes to Ukrainians arriving in the city, including 500 seven-day passes and 900 two-day passes for teenagers, according to the transit agency. The concern at the center is what the newcomers will do when those passes are used up.

“They can give them at least a month until they find work,” said Olga Sakhnina, who helped create the center with the hotel owner after her friends and their children were killed by Russian soldiers while trying to flee Ukraine. “At least a month to go free in the buses or métro, because the people have no money when they arrive here. Some families, yes — but most of the families arriving here, they have no money at all.”

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Other issues, Romano says, are delays in receiving RAMQ cards and the fact that government help lines offer services only in French.

“I think it’s very critical to fix the access to medicare,” she said. “You have children who sometimes cannot wait a month or two to get their medicare. You have pregnant women. I have a diabetic grandmother who I’m terrified (for). She still didn’t get her medical card; her insulin from her is coming to an end.”

Volunteer Tatiana Romano holds Anwar El Hilali at the Ukrainian Newcomers Centre, which operates out of a former restaurant in Hotel Terrasse Royale on Côte-des-Neiges Rd.
Volunteer Tatiana Romano holds Anwar El Hilali at the Ukrainian Newcomers Centre, which operates out of a former restaurant in Hotel Terrasse Royale on Côte-des-Neiges Rd. Photo by John Kenney /Montreal Gazette

The center also has concerns about access to more permanent housing without established credit history in Canada. It hopes landlords will accept a letter of recommendation from the center confirming the potential tenant has secured a job.

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Shwec said he understands the frustration.

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“If you look at somebody who just fled across the border, nothing’s fast enough,” he said. “The thing is, no one’s going to go without. You will have a place to stay, you will be fed, you will be clothed. …

“The government has those agencies that all work on refugees, they’re all mobilized to help the Ukrainians coming in as best they can. It is kind of a work in progress because this has not happened since the Second World War at this scale. Nobody even expected this to happen.”

The logistical challenges in supporting Ukrainians have been noticed at the federal level. Last week, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said it’s been harder than expected to use charter flights to bring Ukrainians to Canada because they fled to different countries.

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Shwec said the UCC has been meeting with the city and providing feedback when needed. The city, for its part, said its integration office “continues to be strongly mobilized to facilitate the reception and integration of newcomers from Ukraine,” and that it is working “tirelessly on identification, access to services, translation and housing issues in support of higher governments.”

In the meantime, places like the Ukrainian Newcomers Center are working to bridge the gaps they have identified.

“But it’s putting a Band-Aid on a foundation crack,” Romano said. “There’s just so much our short-term help can do for them. They need stability. They need to know there’s a roof over their heads.”

Still, for those who lost everything they knew back home, arriving in Montreal — and at the center — has been a blessing.

“You come here, you don’t expect people to help you — they just do,” El Hilali said.

We have been taken charge ever since the airport by this big family who lives in Quebec, and they’ve been following through, step by step, and supporting us step by step in our life here.”

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