Ottawans open their doors to Ukrainians fleeing Russian invasion (photos)

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Ottawans open their doors to Ukrainians fleeing Russian invasion (photos)


Ottawa resident Tammy Jeanveaux is awaiting the arrival of a family of four from Ukraine who will share her Nepean home with her until they get settled. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Ottawans open their doors to Ukrainians fleeing Russian invasion

Like so many of us, Tammy Jeanveaux has been transfixed by the appalling images coming out of Ukraine as Russia continues its brutal and bloody assault on that country: cities reduced to rubble, bodies left where they fell, terrified families fleeing for their lives.

"I was watching the news and like everybody else, just absolutely horrified by what I was seeing," Jeanveaux said. "Just watching those images on TV, I felt I had to do something."

I just said, 'I'm here for you.'- Tammy Jeanveaux

Jeanveaux, who lives alone in a four-bedroom home in Nepean, decided the best way to help was to find one of those families and offer a safe haven under her own roof. It didn't take long.

Through a Facebook group that matches displaced Ukrainians with Canadians willing to take them in, Jeanveaux reached a family of four from the coastal city of Odesa who fled their home on March 4 and are now in neighbouring Romania, where they've just finalized their travel documents to come to Canada.

From left to right, Anna, 18, her mother Olena, father Levan and little sister Tatiia, 6, will soon arrive in Ottawa. The family is currently in Romania after fleeing their home in Odesa. (Submitted)

She was soon on the phone with 18-year-old Anna, the only member of the family who speaks English. 

"I just said, 'I'm here for you,'" Jeanveaux recalled. "I think they had a good life in Odesa, and they've just had to uproot and leave everything behind."

The family — Anna, her six-year-old sister Tatiia, mother Olena and father Levan, who's originally from the former Soviet republic of Georgia and is therefore exempt from military conscription in Ukraine — is now trying to book a flight to Ottawa and could potentially arrive within days. CBC has agreed to withhold the family's surname for their protection.

Jeanveaux, a security specialist with the federal government, has launched an online fundraiser to help cover their airfare and other expenses once the family arrives.

She's also been scrambling to collect the necessary supplies from her local Buy Nothing group and to line up jobs for Olena, a nurse, and Levan, a baker. Jeanveaux admits it's been a daunting task.

"I don't know what the hell I'm doing, I really don't, but I just trust that it's all going to work itself out, and I know no matter what, I'm going to provide a safe place for this family at least until they get settled into their permanent lives."

Hundreds join registry

Others hoping to open their homes to families fleeing the violence in Ukraine are turning to the Ottawa chapter of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC), which is helping co-ordinate humanitarian relief, as well as compiling a registry of people offering accommodation, employment and other help here at home.

As of Tuesday, some 200 people had added their names to that list, including Catherine McLaughlin, whose family owns Terlin Construction in Kanata and Dragonfly Golf Links in Renfrew, Ont.

"We're offering support really in any way we can, whether it's housing or employment or financial support," said McLaughlin, whose own grandparents fled Ukraine during the Second World War, and whose family continues to observe Ukrainian holidays and traditions. 

"We feel like there's a responsibility, and there's a personal attachment as well."

Catherine McLaughlin, whose own grandparents fled Ukraine during the Second World War, said her family is standing by to help in any way they can. 'We are equipped to do this, and we have the resources available. We want to help.' (Humans of Ottawa)

McLaughlin has now recruited three other families to join the UCC registry and said they're all waiting for the phone to ring.

"I am prepared for that call, and we as a family are prepared for that call," she said. "I can't watch for another second these travesties that are occurring and I feel like we need to be in a place of action."

According to the UCC's Ottawa chapter, the offers of help have come in many forms. Most are families with a bedroom or two to spare, but there have also been offers of empty apartments and even campgrounds.

Some have called to offer jobs, mental health counselling or child care. Lawyers have called to offer pro bono work, and doctors have called offering to make room for new patients.

The UCC has even heard from young men seeking information about joining the fight in Ukraine and offering their own homes to displaced families while they're away.

Sophia Lega sorts and labels donated diapers at the Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral Hall in Ottawa as the Ukrainian Canadian Congress collects items for humanitarian aid packages on March 5, 2022. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

The organization said it's working in co-ordination with provincial settlement agencies on how best to vet these offers, and is also investigating "alternative housing options" for new arrivals.

"We've had so many people reaching out to us," said UCC volunteer Olenka Reshitnyk-Bastian, who co-ordinated a donation drive earlier this month that was met with such overwhelming response that organizers had to shut it down earlier than planned.

"We're trying to be proactive, but it's really reactive because it's such a changing crisis."

Ukrainian evacuees board a train to Warsaw at the rail station in Przemysl, near the Polish-Ukrainian border, on Wednesday. (Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images)

Nav Centre offered as refuge

Another significant offer of refuge has come from the founder and president of Devcore Group, which is finalizing its purchase of the Nav Centre in Cornwall, Ont.

"It's a facility that can basically take 500 or 600 people very quickly," said CEO Jean-Pierre Poulin. "They've done this in the past."

In 2017, the residential complex on the shore of the St. Lawrence River was used to temporarily house asylum seekers who had crossed into Canada from the U.S. In late winter 2020 the facility became a COVID-19 isolation centre for Canadian cruise ship passengers returning home.

The Nav Centre in Cornwall, Ont., seen here in August 2017, was used to temporarily house asylum seekers who had crossed into Canada from the U.S. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Poulin said he decided to reach out to the UCC after speaking with a Ukrainian employee of another company he founded, 1VALET. The woman was fleeing toward the border with Romania when she ran out of gas and had to complete the journey on foot. 

"Those are good people, and they might like Canada and stay after," said Poulin, who's also offering to feed any Ukrainians who accept his offer. "They can contribute to the future of Canada."

A history of helping

On March 1, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson wrote to Immigration Minister Sean Fraser to offer any "on-the-ground assistance and opportunities" the city is able to provide people fleeing the war in Ukraine.

While he acknowledged Wednesday that many displaced Ukrainians will want to stay closer to home, Watson also suggested that the number seeking refuge in Ottawa could potentially rival previous waves, including Syrians in recent years and the "boat people" from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia more than four decades ago in what became known as "Project 4000."

"We were able to absorb the roughly 4,000 into the school system, health-care system and so on, so that is a number that we've had some success using, and it may be a similar number," Watson said.

The federal government has pledged to take in an "unlimited" number of Ukrainians fleeing the war, and last week announced a special immigration program that will allow those eligible to live and work in Canada for up to three years.

The program waives many of the typical requirements for Canadian visa applications.

As she anxiously awaits the arrival of her new housemates, Tammy Jeanveaux said she's been troubled by the sheer number of desperate Ukrainians who are now flooding online groups and "begging" for help to come to Canada. 

"It is unbelievable, like it is just non-stop. Hundreds and hundreds of Ukrainians, if not more, pleading for Canadians to take them in," she said, adding some of those people have appealed to her directly.

Jeanveaux said she's doing her best to spread the word, and has already convinced two others to open their own homes to Ukrainians fleeing the Russian onslaught.

And if there's any money left over from her current fundraising campaign, Jeanveaux said she plans to use it to help more families find peace, security and perhaps a future in Ottawa.