Embracing Manitoba Rural communities safe haven for Ukrainian refugees
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For Ukrainian refugee Oleh Lapin and his family, Steinbach has become their safe haven from the guns of war.
Lapin, his wife and six-year-old son were some of the first Ukrainians to arrive in Manitoba in recent weeks after fleeing from the Russian invasion of their country. He already has a job in the booming southeastern Manitoba city that has a large Mennonite population, which traces its roots to eastern Europe.
“We left Ukraine one hour after the war started,” Lapin said, thinking back to Feb. 24. “Our city was struck by Russian missiles one or two times in the first hour of the war.
“My father called us at 5 a.m. — he was in Kyiv — he said the war has started. He said we should leave now and I took his advice.
“It was really fast for us. We just gathered personal belongings and our bags and we left Ukraine. We were in Poland for two months until we got our Canadian visas.
“The safety of my family, and my child, is most important.”
Lapin, a lawyer had worked in civil, family and corporate law in his home city. In Steinbach, he got a job as a paralegal at a law firm three weeks ago.
As many as 1,400 Ukrainians have streamed into Manitoba in the past two months and, for many of them, Winnipeg is not their final destination.
Nick Krawetz, a volunteer with the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, said there has been a concerted effort by officials in other cities and towns to encourage the refugees to think about making their home in a smaller community.
“There definitely are many that have expressed interest, including Steinbach and Winkler, but also Morden, Altona, Brandon, the Parklands around Dauphin, and Minnedosa. There are things happening all over,” Krawetz said.
“There have been between 1,300 and 1,400 individuals come here and every day at the airport there is probably 50 more, on average. Unfortunately, with the war showing no signs of stopping, even more people are coming.”
Krawetz said other Ukrainians, who had arrived elsewhere in Canada, have decided to give Manitoba a try.
“There definitely are many that have expressed interest, including Steinbach and Winkler, but also Morden, Altona, Brandon, the Parklands around Dauphin, and Minnedosa. There are things happening all over.” – Nick Krawetz
“People were thinking of Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, but when they got there they realized the cost of living is so high that they have decided to come here,” he said.
“It is also because Manitoba is leading the country in offering services and supports for them.”
Steinbach’s Chamber of Commerce has provided bus tours of the city for Ukrainians and put on a job fair so they could consider their employment prospects.
Steinbach Mayor Earl Funk said 16 families have chosen the city as their new home.
“It is significant when you look at the size of our community,” Funk said.
“We have a task force we put together working to bring the Ukrainian families here… they help our economic development and we have employment openings.”
Funk said it doesn’t hurt that the new Ukrainians see the family names of generations of eastern Europeans who came here in the past.
“There are so many founding families with Ukrainian background here,” he said.
Anna Mondor, the chamber’s director of economic development, said there are hundreds of good jobs in the city, including at large manufacturers such as Loewen Windows and Barkman Concrete.
“We brought them out here to see the city and they had the opportunity to meet with employers on the same day,” Mondor said. “Our model is working well.”
Winkler Mayor Martin Harder said his community has hosted groups of Ukrainians to show what’s on offer.
“Eight or nine families have already arrived and more are coming,” Harder said. “We have many jobs. There is a large shortage of people here.
“It is bittersweet why they have come here, but you try to show them a piece of the world that has compassion for them. For them to come here, and to find a job and a purpose in life, is a real healing process.”
“Steinbach is a pretty nice city, though it is smaller than my city. It is beautiful and clean and the people are nice.” – Oleh Lapin
Lapin, who helps to translate English for Ukrainians who take a tour of Steinbach, said he is happy with his new job and might study to become a lawyer here.
One thing he knows for certain, he will be even happier on July 1. That’s when he moves from a room in the home of a Steinbach family, to an apartment where he can be under the same roof with his wife and child. They have been living in Winnipeg while their child finishes the school year at an English-Ukrainian bilingual program.
“My wife is also a lawyer in Ukraine, she practised corporate law, but it is harder for her because she doesn’t speak English. She is still learning,” he said.
“Steinbach is a pretty nice city, though it is smaller than my city. It is beautiful and clean and the people are nice. I tell others if they want some changes in their life and want a safe place, this is a good option. Steinbach is like a small European city.”
As for whether Lapin and his family will return to Ukraine if Russian forces leave, he doesn’t have an answer.
“It’s a question I can’t answer,” he said. “It depends on a lot of conditions and circumstances. We left, and we left a lot there: friends, relatives and property. It’s hard.”
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.
Updated on Thursday, June 23, 2022 8:18 PM CDT: fixes typo