SASKATOON — Paul Zidkovich decided to spend almost two hours waiting for Ukrainian refugees to arrive at the John G. Diefenbaker International Airport, looking to welcome displaced citizens of the home country of his parents.
Two hundred Ukrainians, primarily women and children, arrived Wednesday afternoon, Nov. 23, in Saskatoon, the fourth batch of citizens in the war-torn country to be welcomed in Saskatchewan. Three flights have previously landed in Regina.
The refugees, who included individuals from Afghanistan and several African countries, were board a Boeing 787 with the almost 16-hour transatlantic flight flown by Captain Enrique Piñeyro from the non-profit group Solidaire.
The flight was delayed for almost an hour. Refugees fleeing their respective countries started trickling past 5 p.m. and were greeted by provincial and local government officials at the arrival gates.
MLA’s Terry Dennis (Canora-Pelly), Terry Jenson (Martensville-Warman) and Marv Friesen (Saskatoon Riversdale) represented the provincial government, while Saskatoon Mayor Charlie Clark and Ward 6 Councillor Cynthia Block were there for the City of Saskatoon.
Dennis is the provincial government’s Ukrainian Relations Secretary, while Jenson is the Legislative Secretary for Immigration. They were joined by staff members from the social services department and were transported by bus to their temporary shelter.
Zidkovich said curiosity drove him and his friend to the airport, where they would like to help the arriving Ukrainians in any way they could as they had gone through a lot after being forced to leave their country and Russian aggression.
“We speak the language. I speak Ukrainian after learning it from my parents, dating back to 1940. We know the language barrier and perhaps we get to meet some people from the familiar areas like Chernivtsi, which is getting much coverage in the news lately,” Zidkovich told SASKTODAY.
“It was sort of curiosity to me where you can meet new people and welcome them here in Saskatoon. As church people, we’re involved with the Ukrainian Baptist Church; there might be fellow believers here who would look to where they can find a place to worship. So, we’re also here to give them direction.”
He added that they wanted the arriving Ukrainians to see welcoming and friendly faces, talk to them, listen to their stories and console them.
“Talk to them. We can’t do anything like helping them with their bags since other people are doing that. But they come out here thinking they are alone after arriving in a new country, and then they see friendly faces. Just saying hello and welcome to Saskatoon to them will brighten up their day,” said Zidkovich.
One stop shop
Clark said they are setting up a one-stop shop for getting IDs and providing the correct information about what organizations could help them settle and restart their lives in the city. Baba’s Closet is one non-profit group where displaced Ukrainians can get winter gear, non-perishable food, household items and toys for kids.
“There’s been a lot of goods and donations gathered for people, household goods and all those types of things. The city has provided a place for storing many of these donations. We’re setting up a one-stop shop for people to get access to ID,” said Clark.
“All the different connections in the community can help them get back on their feet. It’s ongoing coordination and hosting. Working with the settlement agencies, the provincial government and all the different service agencies out there.”
Baba's Closet has been distributing household items and small appliances as well as clothes and winter gear. Nettie Cherniatenski, who started the shop that offers free items to Ukrainian refugees, said Saskatoon residents continue to donate and support their cause.
"We are prepared to accommodate all displaced Ukrainians. I was [at the airport] to see the flight come in and left to get back to work. I returned when they started to get on the bus. What a lovely addition to our city and province to those travelling to other communities," Cherniatenski told SASKTODAY.
"When I told some children to come to Baba's Closet and I will give them dolls or Legos, their faces lit right up. I now look forward to meeting as many as possible in my shop. My volunteers and Baba's Closet are eager to help them out for the Christmas season.
Clark added that the one-stop shop would also have representatives from the Saskatoon Public Schools and the Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools to help the school-age children brought by their families get into the local educational system.
“I believe that the schools will be there to help connect the people to the school system. We’re very fortunate we have Bishop Filevich School, that’s already here as a Ukrainian language school. It’s already bursting at the seams,” Clark said.
“These are the kinds of connections that are so important. If you are coming in as a family, you don’t know the community, and you don’t know what you will find when you get here, how are you getting your kids into school? We want to make that process as smooth as possible.”
Jenson said the provincial government is ready to accept Ukrainian refugees where they can join their families, for those who have relatives here, and get settled to restart their lives that were suddenly changed by the ongoing war in their country.
“Our government has been clear that we will take as many displaced Ukrainians as possible who want to come to Saskatchewan. We will take as many of them as they want to come here,” Jenson said.
Dennis added that it was time for Saskatoon to receive the province’s fourth Humanitarian flight after Regina had three. The new batch of Ukrainian refugees has brought the total to about 3,000, now calling Saskatchewan their new home.
“We decided to share it around the province. Move it around, and Saskatoon is more than welcoming. The crowd gathered here is doing a great job in taking care of everybody with the kind of accommodations and supports for them,” said Dennis.
“We have some hotels set up for them and a one-stop shop over the next few days where we will be able to get them settled in and feel comfortable like getting their driver’s license, health cards and social insurance. Set them up with various federal or provincial grants to help them with housing as well.”
He added that some refugees have relatives who would help them get temporary housing and settle in the city.
“There are some families that are waiting here. Various groups will take care of families arriving, and church groups that welcome these families go to the hotels. Some of them will be coming home to their families,” Dennis said.