Narina Jabari has watched Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with growing panic, coupled with frustration that Canada is not doing more to help those trying to flee the war reach safety.
For him, it touched home. The 30-year-old was born in Kyiv and has worked to bring her aunt, uncle and cousin from Ukraine to Burlington, Ontario.
But Jabari said bureaucracy and the federal government’s decision not to allow visa-free travel had left many who tried to escape essentially stranded.
Those in Canada trying to help Ukrainians also feel trapped, Jabari said.
“Just before going to bed, I check: ‘OK, is the city still standing?'” he said.
When he woke up, he checked again.
“Panic, fear and shortness of breath have always been like this.”
On Tuesday, Russia stepped up its bombardment of Kyiv as thousands of civilians fled Mariupol along a humanitarian corridor in what is believed to be the biggest evacuation from a desperate besieged port. On the diplomatic front, another round of talks began between Russia and Ukraine.
Also on Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked Canada for its support in a speech to the House of Commons, but said more needed to be done, including additional sanctions and a no-fly zone.
On March 3, Canadian Immigration Minister Sean Fraser announced plans to welcome an “unlimited number” of people leaving their war-torn country to Canada.
Some of that inflow will come via the “accelerated pathway” to permanent residency for Ukrainians with families in Canada.
The government is also creating a Canada-Ukraine Authorization For Emergency Travel program which will allow those who are accepted to work, live or study in Canada for up to two years.
VIEW | Fraser spoke to CBC’s Power & Politics about plans to waive most visa requirements:
Fraser said the goal is for the application process to open within two weeks, the countdown to which ends Thursday.
“We are on track to meet that deadline,” Marie-France Lalonde, the minister’s parliamentary secretary, told CBC. Morning MetroIsmaila Alfa in an interview Tuesday morning.
“We have announced a new program that will cut red tape and of course speed up arrivals to offer Ukraine a safe port.”
MP says government cannot ‘compromise’ safety
Lalonde said 7,400 Ukrainians had come to Canada since January 1, but did not dispute that these people had applied to immigrate here before the invasion began.
When asked how many Ukrainians had arrived since the Russian offensive, he said he could not give a specific number.
Lalonde also did not provide a start date for the emergency travel program, only saying it would launch “in the coming days.”
Responding to calls for visa-free travel, the parliamentary secretary said the government’s plans balance speed with security concerns.
“What we designed got us to that goal, but in a way that didn’t create unintended consequences,” he said.
“We cannot compromise on the safety and security of Canadians and Ukrainians that Canada would welcome.”
The government’s plan waives most of the usual visa requirements, but background checks and biometrics, such as fingerprints, still need to be given before leaving for Canada.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said it had set up visa application centers in neighboring countries and could collect biometrics at its center in Warsaw, with the possibility of sending kits to Vienna and Bucharest as well as backups.
But Jabari said he had trouble finding visa application forms from his home in Canada, even with regular access to the internet and other basic tools that someone fleeing the invasion would not have.
“The expectation from Canadian immigration, that somehow a refugee or someone who has run away can get all of these documents when government buildings, hospitals, banks are bombed or closed … is simply not realistic,” he said during an interview with CBC’s Morning Metro.
Burlington woman wants Canada to ‘open the door’
Jabari described Canada’s response as “disappointing,” noting it was unclear how long the application process would take and many Ukrainians could not afford to be stranded in Europe.
His family members took refuge in Kosiv, a city in western Ukraine, and it was relatively safe – although aerial sirens sounded daily and there had been bombing nearby, he said.
Half of his family is Syrian, he said. They had experienced something similar during the conflict there, he said, and the application process was also complicated.
He pointed to EU countries that had ignored the need for visas and asked why Canada wasn’t doing the same.
“I just want immigration to know that yes, they may streamline, simplify the immigration process, but nothing justifies the fact that this visa process had to be cancelled,” he said.
“When someone needs help you open the door. That’s the first thing you do . . . and we haven’t.”
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