Many of the dozens of Ukrainian refugees who have been arriving in Niagara have nothing but a backpack with a single change of clothes in it.
Some of them don’t know anyone in the region, and a few can’t speak English well enough to explain their situation or ask for help, said Ukrainian Canadian Congress Niagara president Irene Shumylo-Newton.
“We’re getting more people all the time. They’re starting to filter in more and more. We don’t always know when they’re going to arrive,” she said. “I think we’re all flying by the seats of our pants. I don’t think anybody really knows what’s going on.”
Ukrainian Canadian Congress Niagara conservatively estimates at least 20 Ukrainian families and individuals are now staying in the region, but the organization is working with local immigration agencies to determine a more exact number and ensure they are being cared for.
“It’s really hard to get a grip on (the number of refugees in the region),” Shumylo-Newton said. “There’s a lot coming into St. Catharines, Welland, and lots are coming into Niagara Falls. It’s just a matter of figuring out how many there are.”
She said finding apartments for the refugees has been a challenge in a community that is already struggling with a shortage of affordable housing.
“That’s the hard part. If they have money, great but most of them do not.”
Shumylo-Newton said the federal government promised a month ago Ukrainians arriving in Canada will be eligible for two weeks of temporary hotel accommodation and up to six weeks of income support.
“It’s a start, and if the Ontario Works program kicks in it helps. But the problem is that hasn’t happened yet. We keep asking where is this money we were supposed to get, and the answer we get from the IRCC (Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada) is they haven’t figured out how to put it into work yet,” she said.
“You’ve had a month and you couldn’t figure this out. You made an offer, and now I’m looking to get money for these people but it’s not there. It’s ridiculous.”
Shumylo-Newton said UCCN is working with Niagara Region to assist refugees applying for Ontario Works benefits.
The Region confirmed its community services team is ensuring people coming to Niagara have access to emergency funds and other supports depending on their needs.
In a statement, the Region said it is “grateful for the opportunity to work with local support agencies and volunteers that have mobilized to support Ukrainian refugees.”
Still, Shumylo-Newton said those benefits of roughly $700 to $900 a month don’t begin to cover the cost of rent.
“They have to try to survive on that until they can start working, and trying to find an apartment, even one bedroom you’re looking at about $1,400 a month, minimum,” she said.
Even when housing can be found for refugees, they need furnishings, appliances, clothing and food.
Despite the confusion and mounting challenges groups assisting the refugees are facing, Shumylo-Newton said they are “actually managing, somehow.”
Much of the progress, she added, is the result of the community’s overwhelming generosity.
Shumylo-Newton said much of the donations that have been collected primarily by local Ukrainian churches have been held back to support the needs of refugees arriving in the region.
“Every church is doing their bit to help,” she said.
UCCN is working with The Furniture Bank and Warehouse of Hope as well to collect some of the many items the refugees need, while some people have contacted the organization directly offering to help.
“We’re doing what we can,” she said.