When Russia invaded Ukraine in February it led to the formation of the Rupert Refugee Support Group to help relocate displaced Ukrainians in Prince Rupert.
Now, the ongoing conflict in eastern Europe has led to the formation of another society focussed on providing ongoing language and cultural support to the 35+ Ukrainians who have landed in the city.
It all started when Debbie Mierau, a local graphic designer of Ukrainian descent, talked to her third cousin in Ukraine. Her son had been working in a Volkswagon factory in Slovakia that was shut down due to the war.
Not wanting to go back to Ukraine, he and his 13-year-old son reached out for help to get to Canada. Debbie’s daughter, Katie Beer, stepped in to navigate the immigration system.
Having successfully relocated their extended family member, they recognized the support needed by all the new arrivals went beyond just the practical concerns of visas, jobs, a place to live and basic essentials such as clothing, furniture and food.
“They’re really homesick,” said Miereau. “So, anyway, we decided to start this club to give them help.”
One of the first things the newly formed Prince Rupert Ukrainian Society did was partner with United for Ukraine, a program of the United Way to provide language support.
“We have about nine to 10 volunteers throughout the province who are running language support,” Beer said. “So, if any of the Ukrainian families within the Northwest or in the whole North, need assistance with some kind of translation or whatnot, we can assist with that.”
Next up for the society will be participating in the upcoming Prince Rupert Remembrance Day ceremonies. The society will lay a wreath “to honour and commemorate all Canadians and Ukrainians who fought or continue to serve.”
At the ceremonies, those who have them will be wearing their vyshyvankas, the traditional embroidered blouses that indicate the region of Ukraine from which the wearer hails.
Of course, many of the people who have fled Ukraine and landed in Prince Rupert were only able to bring a bare minimum of possessions and are without these important cultural garments.
“Considering that a lot of the Ukrainians had to leave Ukraine on a moment’s notice… a lot of them were left behind,” Beer said. “So, in the new year, we’re combining with The Argosy (antique store) to do a pop-up shop.”
The pop-up will be selling t-shirts featuring a generic embroidered design to raise funds.
“Through that fundraising, we’re actually going to be purchasing vyshyvankas for the families that are here, to replace the ones that were left back in Ukraine.”
Another major fundraiser for the group coming up even sooner is a contemporary Ukrainian photography exhibit at the Ice House Gallery Dec. 3.
“We actually connected with a photographer in western Ukraine,” Beer said. “So we have about 13 photographs of Ukraine before the war.”
Prints of those photos will be available for purchase along with calendars and pysanky (Ukrainian Easter eggs).
For Mireau, getting the society going was very personal.
“When I first saw Russia attacking Ukraine, I got so pissed off that, where am I going to direct this anger?” she said.
As a graphic designer she poured it into creating lapel buttons and didn’t stop until she had a huge jug of them.
“And then I went to the credit union, I said, ‘I’ve got all these buttons, I want to find a way to raise money.’ So they started taking them and people gave and we raised $3,000, just like that. So that’s the start of the funds in this thing.”
While the society is grateful for all the practical support the Prince Rupert community has given and continues to provide for the refugees, they are focussed on making sure their emotional needs are also being met.
“We’re more about the cultural,” Beer said. “It’s important and that’s the piece we’re taking care of.”