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First Ukrainians fleeing Russian war arrive amid outpouring of community support

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Cathy Dobson

As the first Ukrainian refugees arrive in Sarnia, residents are opening their hearts and homes to help them settle in.

“My husband and I knew right away this is something we should do,” says Liana Smith, one of about 45 local residents signed up to host Ukrainian families fleeing the Russian war.

Liana and Kevin Smith expect a family of four to arrive Wednesday from Warsaw. A couple, their 10-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter with medical concerns, lived in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, until heavy shelling forced them to run for the Polish border with just a few suitcases.

“We have talked to them by Zoom and they are a really special family,” said Liana Smith. “They are so thrilled to come to Canada.”

Smith said she felt powerless when Russian forces invaded Ukraine in February, so she joined a grassroots effort to bring refugees to Sarnia that’s growing by the week.

“We have a medium-sized house, nothing large, but we converted our basement so the family can have some private space,” she said.

“We are entirely committed to having them stay as long as it takes. And when this family finds their own home, we’re ready to take another family.”

Smith said her great-grandfather died helping Jewish families escape the Nazis in Holland during the Second World War. And her family is Ukrainian on her mother’s side.

“For me, with my family history, this is what we do.  Helping people is a really important part of our family culture,” she said.

Smith is working with Dr. Cassandra Taylor, another Sarnian with Ukrainian roots, who took the lead to create a Facebook page called “Save Ukraine – Sarnia and Lambton County.”

Taylor is working with a group she calls the “task force” comprised of local church leaders, social service reps, MP Marilyn Gladu’s office, and a multitude of volunteers determined to give Ukrainian refugees a new start.

The Facebook page, which provides information on what’s needed and how to help, has attracted $22,000 in donations.

Getting to Canada requires paperwork and difficult-to-get visas, but the first refugees arrived April 17 and more will “trickle in” over the coming weeks, Taylor said.

The task force is working with 23 local host families, and she hopes more will sign up for screening as the process become easier.

For Taylor, it’s personal.

“My mother has family in the Ukraine who are unaccounted for,” she said.  “So I asked, what can we do to help at this end?”

Though many refugees favour larger Canadian cities, Sarnia has appeal because it’s near the water, and has a lower cost of living and available jobs, Taylor said.

The swell of support and kindness shown by Sarnia-Lambton is attracting them as well, she said. “Locally, the response has been absolutely amazing. Everyone wants to help.”

The Smiths were overwhelmed by the furniture, clothing, toys and books residents have donated.

“One mom brought me an entire bookshelf of educational material to help them learn English,” said Smith.  “People are so thoughtful.” She’s also received gift cards, cash and frozen meals.

“There are so many people helping,” Smith added.  “It’s restoring my faith in the world.”

Want to help? Here’s what’s needed:

* Host homes for families, couples and individuals

* Volunteer drivers to get refugees to appointments

* New and gently used clothing and household goods

* Donations for customized Welcome Baskets

* Money. E-transfers can be made on Facebook (Save Ukraine- Sarnia and Lambton County). No tax receipts provided.

* Visit the Facebook page if you want to help or have a question. Bethel, Trinity Anglican and St. George’s Ukrainian churches are also taking donations and fielding inquiries.

* Dr. Taylor’s office at 481 London Rd. is accepting donations.

Host family eagerly awaiting visa for refugees

Cathy Dobson

For Sarnia’s Emily Grant, waiting for a Ukrainian refugee family to obtain a visa has taken much too long.

But her angst can’t match that of the mother and two children waiting in a hotel in Poland to come to Sarnia, she said.

“I am just heartbroken. They are exhausting their life savings while they wait.”

The mother and children fled a small community outside Kiev, while the father stayed to fight.

“I don’t know a lot about their story, but missiles were flying over their house and they could see explosions and that’s when they decided to leave,” Grant said.

“I am ready and waiting for them to get here where they can feel safe.”

Grant is one of many volunteers trying to match refugees with host families in Southwestern Ontario.

The local outpouring of support for the war-ravaged country is heartwarming, she said.

“It takes a village, and ours has always shown itself to be such a great one.”

Grant said her husband and three children didn’t hesitate when she asked if they wanted to be hosts.

“It’s not only families that need somewhere to stay.  There are teenagers under 18 who are coming on their own. I think their families want them to leave before they reach the age when they are forced to fight.

“They need support too.  They all do.”


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