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Ukrainians with Canadian visas face agonizing decisions about the future

OTTAWA — It was 4:40 in the morning when bombs started to drop on Lilyia Dvornichenko’s hometown of Kharkiv in Ukraine, just an hour from the Russian border.

Her jaw is set and her tone is matter-of-fact as she describes the first terrifying moments two years ago when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of her country. 

“Everybody thought it was gonna be over tomorrow. Tomorrow. Tomorrow it will be over,” she says, recalling her journey while sitting in a hotel coffee shop in Warsaw, Poland.

“It got worse and worse.” 

With a grim laugh, she describes the effect the stress had on her body — how she resembled a skeleton after only a few days.

Dvornichenko helped organize a convoy of vehicles to take her family members across the country and slept in an abandoned kindergarten building where they weren’t allowed to turn on the lights for fear of being targeted by airstrikes. 

She only made it across the border by brandishing a crowbar to prevent other cars from blocking their path on a lawless road as millions of people headed for the safety of Poland. 

She speaks with a composed, sober air as she recounts those terrible days. It’s only when she talks about her decision not to return to Ukraine that her voice quivers and she covers her face. 

“The patriotically correct thing would be to go back, right? To create jobs, to take jobs, to pay taxes, to restore,” she said. “But I kinda lost faith that it’s fixable.”

The UN refugee agency says 6.5 million Ukrainians have been listed as refugees around the world as of Feb. 2024. Some 960,000 have visas to come to Canada.

But with the deadline to make good on those visas set to expire on Sunday, many Ukrainians are facing difficult decisions about where their future will take them and whether they ever plan to return home. 

Canada appears to have seen a sharp increase in Ukrainian newcomers in the last month ahead of that deadline. As of the end of February, 248,726 Ukrainians had made the journey to Canada, though it’s unclear how many have stayed. 

By the end of March, Immigration Minister Marc Miller says the number of newcomers is expected to be close to 300,000. 

Though the visa that allows Ukrainians to work and study in Canada is temporary, the vast majority who have come to Canada and stayed have signalled their intention to settle permanently. 

Few make the costly journey lightly. While many people in Dvornichenko’s family got the visa, they all made different decisions about what to do next. While one niece opted to come to Canada, other family members stopped their journey in Poland, while others still remain in Ukraine.

As a single professional who speaks fluent English, Dvornichenko said Canada offered an appealing option as she stands a good chance of eventually getting permanent residency. But she also supports her parents, who are unlikely to ever attain Canadian citizenship.

“I can drag them to completely foreign country for three years, and then send them back?” she said. “I can’t. … It’s absolutely pointless.”

Nor does she feel she can go back home herself. 

Like many Ukrainians in Canada, she plans to continue to fundraise and support the war effort from abroad.

With her parents’ apartment in Kharkiv destroyed, along with everything they owned in Ukraine, the idea of going back, even after the war is over, seems unlikely. 

“I do understand that I have reasons, right? But at the same time, I wish it was different. I really do,” she said. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2024.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press


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