Refugees settle in; pleas issued for more housing funds


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Constantine Domin and Mariia Domina knew they had to leave Kyiv when the bombs began to fall in Ukraine, but could never have guessed they’d end up in Winnipeg.

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Constantine Domin and Mariia Domina knew they had to leave Kyiv when the bombs began to fall in Ukraine, but could never have guessed they’d end up in Winnipeg.

The couple — Domin, a 28-year-old lawyer, and wife Domina, a 25-year-old who was roughly eight months pregnant at the time — travelled to Poland to seek safety in the wake of the Russian invasion early this year. One night, they received a letter from Canadian immigration authorities, saying they had two tickets available.

The couple made a split-second decision.

Mariia Domina, 25, and her three-month-old son Lev are starting a new life in Winnipeg after fleeing Kyiv, Ukraine. (Jessica Lee / Winnipeg Free Press)

“The farther away (from war), the better,” Domin said Wednesday. “We didn’t know people here — we didn’t have family, friends, nobody.”

“We were so scared,” Domina added.

They landed in Winnipeg May 23; their son, Lev, was born in July. Now, they live in the Downtown Commons building on Colony Street, as part of a project between the University of Winnipeg Community Renewal Corp. and New Journey Housing to move Ukrainian refugees out of Manitoba hotels and into homes.

The project brought in donors to subsidize rent costs not covered by the province’s Temporary Assistance Program for 15 Ukrainian families living in Downtown Commons.

A Wednesday afternoon gathering hosted by the group connected refugees and donors, and the success of the project was apparent in the lively conversation over perogies and cabbage rolls. Ukrainian families of different ages and backgrounds discussed coming to Canada and their hopes for the future with the Winnipeggers who helped them get here.

However, the project is in jeopardy, as the Temporary Assistance Program, which has offered short-term financial help with rent, groceries and some medical coverage to Ukrainian refugees in Manitoba to the tune of around $500-$900 monthly (depending on several factors) is set to expire in November.

When it ends, UWCRC chief executive officer Jeremy Read said, the $32,600 in donations raised by the project will quickly be used up.

After that, the non-profit has “got a decision to make.”

“I hope that our organization can find a way, at least through the coldest months here, to continue to extend some flexibility and generosity… Our community has been great in terms of welcoming, absorbing, supporting Ukrainians who are coming here on a temporary or permanent basis,” Read said.

“But I think the Ukrainian community here is pretty tired. And they only have so many resources to put up for so long.”

Downtown Commons typically provides apartments at affordable, market and premium rates. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, immigration slowed and international students left the city, leaving vacancies in the building now filled with Ukrainian newcomers.

The federal government is working on developing a permanent residence program for Ukrainian refugees. The goal for UWCRC and New Journey Housing is to keep people on their feet until they’re able to get that status and then be eligible to apply for employment and rent assistance programs.

Bridging that time gap is the challenge, Read said. “For the time being, we’ve been able to keep these valleys, and we don’t want to lose them through December, January, February of this year, in the middle of the winter.”

New Journey Housing executive director Codi Guenther said it has called on the province to consider extending the program. “For those clients of ours that are living off of TAP right now, I honestly do not know what they will do.”

Prior to the strife in the Ukraine, New Journey Housing dealt with around 25 newcomer families a month. Now, it can log as many as 200 families just from Ukraine.

This means while some have had months to use the program to help them gain independence, others will be coming to Winnipeg without the same opportunities, should the program not be extended.

“People are still coming… We need that continuation of supports for those families,” Guenther said.

While some newcomers have been able to quickly gain meaningful employment, others, some hindered by the language barrier, have not.

“It’s the single-parent households that we’re very worried about, the single households maybe that haven’t found work right away — but there’s definitely people that still need that support,” she said.

Both Guenther and Read said they’d like to see the province extend TAP, especially considering the war in Ukraine shows no signs of slowing.

“We still don’t know. And we are asking, and we are waiting, to hear what the province is going to do,” Guenther added.

In the meantime, donors visiting Downtown Commons said they were moved to see how the families they had helped had come to thrive in Winnipeg.

“I feel like this is people helping people, which really adds up to countries helping countries,” said George Cibinel of Cibinel Architecture Ltd. “I felt like, ‘Hey, we’re just picking up a few broken pieces out of a million broken pieces.’ But that all adds up.”

For Domin and Domina, their time in Winnipeg has been full of surprises. Namely, they’ve found themselves moved by the kindness of organizations and everyday people alike. They hope to stay in Downtown Commons as long as they can, while Domin works nights in a warehouse and days learning English, and Domina raises their newborn son.

For Lev, Domin said, he hopes his son lives in a more peaceful time than his parents.

“It’s very hard when you live and don’t know what will be on the next day,” he said. “We want a good future for him.”

Malak Abas

Malak Abas

Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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