Through the eyes of newcomers to small town Manitoba, Canada offers peace, security

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Karina Havina is working hard to learn English — the first step on the path to her dream of starting a nail business and becoming a Canadian citizen.

“My name is Karina and I’m happy to be here,” she wrote, then read, in English.

Havina, 22, is one of dozens of Ukrainians who fled the war and are now in Altona, a small community in southern Manitoba.

She is among newcomers who say she wants to remind local residents how lucky they are to live in Canada, despite her history of abuse involving Indigenous peoples and other ethnic groups.

She left Ukraine three weeks after the war began in February, reluctantly leaving behind her 19-year-old brother and mother.

Havina spent several months in Poland before emergency travel authorization has been approved. She arrived in Canada on May 10 and now lives with her aunt, Nelli Voloshanavskiy.

“She was really scared the day [the war started] …especially when the plane starts circling the city,” said Voloshanavskiy, who translated the Q&A for Havina in a recent interview.

“They feel like they’re bombing them all and everyone’s going to die. So she thought it best…get to safety.”

Havina is slowly adjusting to the peace and quiet of the farming community, her aunt said, “but she still worries, of course, for her mother and her family.… [She] said, ‘I don’t know if I’ll see her again, if I’ll see him again.'”

give back

Voloshanavskiy is also a newcomer. She started a new life in Altona five years ago and now helps others do the same.

She said she was grateful for the opportunity and the welcome she received.

“When I saw some families like that, they have more problems than me, so I really want to help them. I really want to give them a chance to start their life better,” she said.

That’s why she volunteers with another Altona resident, Callum Morrison, who helps resettle refugees.

One of his jobs is to organize the drop off of donations at the Altona Mall, where local residents have dropped off furniture, mattresses, dishes and bedding – with some of the things coming into the homes equipped for the new arrivals.

Voloshanavskiy and Havina meet Callum Morrison, an Altona resident who helps resettle newcomer families. They are in the donation depot, where people have left furniture and household items to fill the homes of the refugees. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

Many residents of the town of about 4,300 have Mennonite ancestors who also fled what is now Ukraine, fleeing war and persecution, so “they always do what they can to help,” Morrison said.

The influx of newcomers is also shattering some of the stereotypes of rural Mennonite communities, he said.

“Sometimes people here will think, we might be closed-minded, we might not be open to change.

“But really, it shows that even in these small places, Canada isn’t just one thing. We are many different peoples and…we come together to support those in need.”

Altona may not be a favorite destination for many newcomers, but it has one thing most are looking for: jobs.

The print shop still operates at Friesens, one of Canada’s largest book printers and one of Altona’s largest employers.

A third of its 600 employees were not born in Canada. The company has a lot of work and a career development process for Ukrainian refugees arriving now, said Odia Reimer, vice president of people and culture at Friesens.

“We are looking for people who want to work,” she said.

A woman stands in a hallway with brightly colored posters lining the wall.
Odia Reimer, vice president of people and culture at Friesens in Altona, says a third of the print shop’s employees were born in another country, and Friesens continues to recruit newcomers, (Karen Pauls/CBC)

Friesens will provide them with a place to live, arrange phone and internet, and help them get their Manitoba health card and social insurance number, Reimer said.

Newly arrived employees are also paired with a corporate and community mentor.

“We set them up in all sorts of ways to make sure they were successful when they landed in Altona,” Reimer said, adding the goal was to make them feel like part of a family. .

“It’s really fun to see how people are thriving and finding a home here.”

Must see Canada “through everyone’s eyes”

Altona residents and businesses have sponsored about 300 refugees from war-torn countries over the past 15 years through the nonprofit group Build a Village, according to Ray Loewen, the organization’s founder.

“They came from Congo, Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Venezuela, Colombia,” said Loewen, whose group helps support refugee families in the region.

“It has greatly improved the community.”

A woman stands behind a toddler while a man stands next to her holding a baby.  Ray Loewen stands to the left of the family.
Ray Loewen of Build a Village with a family who arrived in Altona from Burundi, via Uganda, two months ago. Before that, they spent five years in a refugee camp. On their first day of English class, they wanted to learn to say, “Canada is fine,” says Loewen. (Submitted by Ray Loewen)

The newcomers have broadened the community’s worldview and given them a new perspective on their home in Canada — a perspective that sometimes contrasts with the reality of this country, he said.

“Whenever we talk to newcomer families about their experience, it’s impossible for us to imagine the horrors they endured as a result of the war or other things they had to deal with,” said Loewen.

“When we see Canada for the first time through the eyes of a refugee family, we see a country that is largely peaceful, largely safe and great to live in.”

However, it’s also hard to imagine the horrors Indigenous people have suffered and continue to suffer in Canada, Loewen said, pointing to residential schools and recent discoveries of what are believed to be unmarked graves at many sites. .

“For Canada to truly be a great nation for everyone, we need to see ourselves and our country through everyone’s eyes,” he said.

For now, Karina Havina is looking forward to seeing fireworks on Canada Day, which has been banned in Ukraine since Russia invaded the Crimean peninsula in 2014.

“She says she’s really happy to be here,” Voloshanavskiy said. “She’s grateful to everyone who helps her be here right now.”

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