WARSAW, Poland – Since packing up a small suitcase and leaving her home in Ukraine with her six-year-old son, Iryna Mishyna has found solace in helping other families in similar situations find some stability.
Her own situation, however, is still less than certain.
The 35-year-old was granted a temporary visa to work in Canada while she seeks refuge from the war, but her son Nikita is one of nearly 279,000 Ukrainians whose applications are still waiting for a response.
“I want to take a (Canadian) visa for my son because for him, it’s a very good opportunity, a very good chance,” Mishyna said in an interview in Warsaw, where she has lived since leaving Ukraine.
She applied in July and her visa came through in September, but after waiting six months she has heard no word from the Canadian government about her son.
“I asked, but they just told me ‘Wait,’” she said.
And so every day she co-ordinates volunteers in an airy room on the second floor of Warsaw’s central train station, where a dozen small wooden benches are laid with thin foam mats, blankets, and star-shaped pillows so Ukrainian children can sleep after fleeing their home country.
Between 20 and 60 people use the makeshift shelter some nights, Mishyna said while sitting on one of the improvised beds.
Inflatable mattresses are flipped up against the wall, awaiting families arriving from Ukraine who need a place to rest while they figure out what to do next.
Mishyna is trying to do the same.
“I don’t know what I should do now,” she said.
Mishyna isn’t the only mother in this situation, said Randall Baran-Chong, the founder of Pathfinders for Ukraine, a Canadian organization that has helped people navigate the immigration system since the war began.
“We’ve heard of several kinds of issues with, for whatever reason, (the Immigration Department) issuing the mother the visa, but not the children,” said Baran-Chong from his home in Toronto.
Some people have been waiting since as far back as March or April, he said.
When Russian tanks began their assault on Ukraine nearly one year ago, Ukrainians fled toward the Polish border in the millions, causing a massive European refugee crisis as neighbouring countries struggled to house the tremendous number of women and children.
Canada launched a first-of-its-kind program to allow Ukrainians to bypass the usual refugee system, and instead come to Canada quickly with a temporary work and study permit to wait out the war.
Of the 839,567 applications received under the emergency program since it opened in March, roughly 64 per cent had been approved as of Feb. 7.
Applying for the visas wasn’t an easy process, Mishyna said. It meant leaving her son in Poland while she returned to Ukraine — and the war — to update their passports and get all their documents in order.
Her temporary visa is valid for only three years, and the clock is ticking down on Mishyna’s paperwork while she waits to hear about what will happen to her son’s application.
More complex applications might take longer to process, and the time it takes to evaluate an application varies based on a “number of factors,” federal Immigration Department spokesperson Julie Lafortune said in a statement.
The government aims to deal with temporary work permits within 60 days, but 25 per cent of cases in the queue have taken longer and are part of a backlog as of Dec. 31, the department’s statistics show.
People who apply under the emergency program are offered “accelerated, prioritized processing,” she said, and it is the fastest way for Ukrainians and their families to get to Canada.
Mishyna said she feels lucky compared to some people who are desperate to get to Canada. She has a home and a job in Warsaw, but she knows others who haven’t been so lucky.
Digital advertisements on the sidewalks and underground tunnels around Warsaw Central Station flash the Ukrainian coat of arms with messages of support for the embattled country, but other signs of support for refugees in Poland have begun to fade.
The expansive public park across from the station that was filled with tents and kiosks offering refugees food, help and advice at the beginning of the war is now empty, and many refugee centres have closed.
“I think it’s because of a shortage with financing from local authorities,” said Andrii Melnyk, a former Ukrainian diplomat living in Warsaw.
He worked at the Canadian visa application centre in Warsaw shortly after the emergency program opened to Ukrainians, and saw thousands of people rush to apply.
Since then, he said international refugee centres, including those from Canada, have shut down and shelter spaces have been consolidated, leaving fewer beds for families who have not found a more stable solution. Some people who were living in the shelters without a visa or enough funds to go elsewhere went back to Ukraine, Melnyk said.
Still, he said Canada did a good job of opening its doors to refugees quickly and adapting the program to accommodate the huge demand.
Of the more than 540,000 Ukrainians who have received visas to come to Canada, only about 158,000 have made the journey.
A Canadian visa is an insurance policy for some people who would prefer to stay closer to home, said Baran-Chong.
“We’ve heard of some people saying, ‘If my husband gets killed, then I will go to Canada because there’s no reason for me to go back,’” he said.
“Some of them were saying, ‘If my home is OK, I’ll go back, but if my home is destroyed I’ll just start my new life in Canada.’”
Some of those visa-holders may also be men who are not allowed to leave Ukraine because of rules imposed as part of the martial law in that country.
For others, the cost of getting to Canada is prohibitively expensive. Canada arranged for three charter flights to bring 950 Ukrainians to Canada last year, but no more flights are currently planned.
The Ukrainian Canadian Congress said there have been some free flights available, but not enough.
“If you’re a refugee in Europe who’s fled, you don’t probably have enough money to buy a plane ticket for yourself and your kids to come to Canada,” the group’s executive director, Ihor Michalchyshyn, said in an interview in Ottawa.
“There’s so many people (in Canada) who’ve needed help, we haven’t even had a moment to think about those who haven’t been able to come.”
The relatively long wait for Mishyna and her son has left her wondering if she will ever make the trip to Canada.
She has a job now helping other families from her country, and she’s enrolled Nikita in school in Warsaw. Leaving now would mean uprooting him again, and lead to more uncertainty when their visas expire.
Like other families who arrive at the train station in Poland, she said she wants some certainty about the future.
“I just want … to finish this story,” she said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 17, 2023.
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