Ukrainian refugees receive Winnipeg welcome

First of three flights bound for Canada touches down in Winnipeg

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Applause and bilingual cheers greeted more than 300 Ukrainians arriving in Winnipeg Monday afternoon as the first of three federal chartered flights landed in Canada.

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Applause and bilingual cheers greeted more than 300 Ukrainians arriving in Winnipeg Monday afternoon as the first of three federal chartered flights landed in Canada.

Seeking refuge from the war in Ukraine, most passengers smiled behind their masks upon spotting the Ukrainian and Canadian flags at the international arrivals gate at the Richardson International Airport, and they waved to the gathered crowd of spectators. A mother made a heart symbol with her hands as volunteers dressed in traditional Ukrainian outfits handed her young son a stuffed toy. One newly arrived passenger loudly exclaimed his gratitude, shouting in English: “Thank you, Winnipeg! Thank you very much, Manitoba!”

The passengers were taken to a provincial reception centre near the airport and then bussed to a hotel. They received help applying for fast-tracked necessary documents such as provincial health cards.

Ukrainian nationals fleeing the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine arrive at Richardson International Airport. (David Lipnowski / The Canadian Press)

The Ukrainians arrived via emergency travel visas on the first of three planned federal government chartered flights. The next two flights are scheduled to land in Montreal and Halifax.

It’s unclear how many Ukrainians who arrived Monday afternoon will stay in Winnipeg or in Manitoba.

Volodymyr Pimakhov hopes many will choose to settle here. He left Ukraine two years ago to move to Winnipeg, and he heartily welcomed the newcomers at the airport Monday as he waited for a friend from medical school to arrive.

“I’m a pretty fresh newcomer, and I have the experience of starting new in Winnipeg,” Pimakhov said, saying he wants to do whatever he can to help other newcomer Ukrainians. His friend reached out to him on Facebook about coming to Canada, and he encouraged her to come to Winnipeg.

“Now, Ukrainians have become a huge close-knit family,” he said. “We need to support one another.”

Natalie and Paul Lebedev hold Canadian and Ukrainian flags as they welcome Ukrainian refugees. (David Lipnowski / The Canadian Press)

Pimakhov said he feels some survivor’s guilt not being in Ukraine now.

“You have the sensation that your nation is fighting for their freedom, and you’re staying inside in a safe area,” he said.

Deputy prime minister Chrystia Freeland and Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson were part of the welcome party greeting Ukrainians.

The Manitoba Association of Newcomer Serving Organizations has been preparing for the arrival of Ukrainians since April and has been working with many local groups.

Emily Halldorson, the agency’s Ukraine Response Coordinator, said the goal is to get people settled into permanent accommodations as soon as possible. It’s unknown how many other Ukrainians may seek to come to Manitoba, but having some idea would be helpful to the association. The resource centre and arrangements to help arriving Ukrainians secure necessary documents is unique, Halldorson said.

Premier Heather Stefanson (left) greets a young refugee. (David Lipnowski / The Canadian Press)

“We’re hoping this sets a precedent for some of the other newcomers that also need to be treated that way, so it’s exciting.”

Among the crowd of spectators were several volunteers who’ve connected with Ukrainians on social media and provided them with information about coming to Canada.

Devon Ross has acted as a host four times in the past month for Ukrainians arriving in the city. He arranges to pick them up from the airport and help them secure apartments, social insurance numbers and health cards.

“I started off just wanting to help out one person,” Ross said.

He offers his help online, on social media and in forums, and said it’s been rewarding for him to help newcomers.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland (left) welcomes a refugee family. (David Lipnowski / The Canadian Press)

Janice Olenko, who grew up in a Ukrainian community near Gimli, waved Ukrainian flags to celebrate the flight’s arrival. She said she has been volunteering her time to help Ukrainians since the war broke out.

“I knew I could offer my time to help, and it’s important. People don’t have homes… all of a sudden, they’re being attacked and not knowing where to turn,” she said.

Over the past six weeks, Olenko and about 60 other volunteers have joined Manitoba Operation Blue Skies, a newly incorporated non-profit that is promoting Manitoba to displaced Ukrainians. Some of the 800 people the organization has connected with were expected to be on Monday’s flight, said chairperson MaryAnn Mihychuk, former Liberal MP for Kildonan-St. Paul. The non-profit is trying to raise money for future flights and plans to hold a weekly meet-up in Assiniboine Park for the newcomers.

“The Ukrainians that are here are a bit lonely at the hotel, so they’re looking to socialize and meet more people,” Mihychuk said.

Prior to the flight’s arrival Monday, about 700 displaced Ukrainians had already arrived in Manitoba, the Free Press previously reported.

A young refugee was able to bring her pet. (David Lipnowski / The Canadian Press)

katie.may@winnipegfreepress.com

A young Ukrainian refugee inspects a taxidermy polar bear in the airport. (David Lipnowski / The Canadian Press)
Katie May

Katie May
Reporter

Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.

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