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Ukrainian journalist takes circuitous path to reach Vancouver

June 9, 2022

When Russia started bombing Ukraine on Feb. 24, Anna Klochko was on a weeklong holiday in Odesa and unprepared to make the life-altering decision whether to return to her Kyiv apartment or flee the country.

She was rocked out of sleep early that morning and immediately started to react.

“The explosion was so huge and I checked the news, it was 5 a.m.,” she said from the backyard of her temporary basement suite in Vancouver’s west side. “Many cities were being hit with missiles at the same time.”

Her immediate thought was for the safety of her parents, who live in Sumy, 40 km from the Russian border, and after reaching them by phone, her second thought was to get some cash from the ATM downstairs.

“In an hour, all the ATMs were done,” and were dispensing no more money, she said.

Klochko is among 2,200 Ukrainian families that have arrived in B.C. since March 17, when the Canadian government announced it was relaxing rules for Ukrainians to enter Canada on a work or visitor visa, said Iryna Shyroka, president of the Vancouver branch of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress.

The program lets Ukrainians who had fled the war, an estimated four million of the country’s 41 million prewar population, apply for a special no-fee visa that allows them to live in Canada for up to three years. They can work or study and children can enrol in school immediately.

Between March 17 and May 25, Immigration Canada received more than 259,000 applications under the Canada Ukraine authorization for emergency travel program, of which over 120,600 have been approved, according to Canadian figures released Thursday.

Between Jan. 1 and May 22, a period that includes the two months before the war started, more than 35,455 Ukrainian citizens arrived in Canada, Ottawa said.

Canada’s decision to open its doors to Ukrainians, which drew Klochko, a photojournalist who speaks English, to Canada over Britain or the U.S., has overwhelmed Vancouver’s ability to find accommodation for them.
“We have nowhere to place people,” said Shyroka. “We tell people to make sure you find yourself accommodation before you make plans to come to Vancouver. We have been doing our best to find rooms for them to stay, but now our best is zero. We have used up all our volunteer resources.”

She said two online agencies that were set up to match arrivals to locals have been swamped and one has closed to reassess its mission and the other is expected to close in weeks.

Some arrivals, mostly women and children, as adult males are required to fight the war, have found temporary lodging offered by the Red Cross at a hotel, but it has only 36 rooms, said Shyroka.

The federal government has paid to bring three planeloads of Ukrainians to Canada, which landed last month in Halifax, Winnipeg and Montreal. Shyroka said many then travel to Toronto or Vancouver, where jobs are plentiful and Ukrainian communities are large but housing is tight.

“In Vancouver, even people with money can’t find anything” to rent, she said.

On Thursday, a reporter received an email from two Ukrainian students, 19 and 25 years old, who were on the charter to Winnipeg and are enrolled in the Vancouver Institute for Media Arts. They are scheduled to arrive in Vancouver on Monday and have nowhere to live.

Klochko, whose journey took her to Slovakia, then Italy to stay with a friend, then to Austria and Germany, has relied on the generosity of friends and Go Fund Me accounts to pay for her plane ticket to Canada and find her places to stay.

She had moved to Kyiv when COVID started, where she worked as a writer for an agricultural agency, filing stories, photos and video to seven different websites, and she had only her phone and a small bag of clothes in Odesa.
She has been met with generosity from strangers, including a friend’s parents who paid for two nights in a Bratislava hotel, Slovakians who gave free passage on trains, free food, free toiletries, and even psychological help, a hotelier who discounted her Vienna room, a dentist who filled three of her teeth after she lost a filling in Frankfurt and a couple she met in Italy who put her up in Frankfurt.

“People everywhere were amazing,” she said. “I was impressed at how friendly and helpful everyone was. A police officer took my hand and took me to the bus station (in Bratislava). There were buses for Ukrainians. If you just show your passport, it’s free.”

Her parents urged her to leave and told her that after she crossed the border “we are relaxed about you. We know you’re in a safe place.”

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