Children displaced by the war in Ukraine are having fun and making friends at an Anglican church in Toronto.
The children, some of whom have special needs, meet at Redeemer, Bloor St. every second Saturday morning for an hour of arts and crafts and games. It is often the highlight of their week.
“Each class is one hour but they don’t want to leave, so usually they’re hopping around for an hour and a half,” says Liz Zur, the team leader of the program. “They love it. They really want to be there.”
The program, called Creative Inclusion, is run by the Toronto chapter of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress. It is for children who have come to Canada under the Canada Ukraine Emergency Authorization, a special measure by the federal government that allows Ukrainians and their family members to stay in Canada until it is safe for them to return home.
Back in December, Ms. Zur, a volunteer with the congress, approached Redeemer to see if it would be interested in providing space for the program. The children and their parents live all over the city, and she wanted a central location that would be easy for them to get to on the subway.
Archdeacon Steven Mackison, incumbent of Redeemer, says the church was excited about the prospect. “Having witnessed what has been happening in Ukraine over the last year and a half, and not knowing how to help, we saw an opportunity,” he recalls. “Human need was knocking at the door, and when human needs knock at the door, you greet it with compassion and open the door.”
The program started in mid-December and has been going strong ever since. The class is designed for 12 kids but usually about 14 show up.
Ms. Zur says Redeemer’s help has been invaluable. “It means everything because without a space we have no opportunity to gather. Without a place to have a schedule and store our supplies, it would be nearly impossible for us to do this.”
Redeemer provides the space for free and has committed to a number of classes, which gives the program stability, she adds.
As the mother of a special needs child herself, Ms. Zur says she can relate to the parents of special needs children who are coming to Canada from Ukraine. About one-third of the children in the program have developmental challenges such as autism and ADHD.
“I know how hard it is to go through a transition, and they’ve been through a terrible one,” she says.
Because they do not have refugee status, the parents and children in the program are not eligible for a lot of disability resources in Canada, she explains. For those who do get on a list for services, it is often a long wait.
“This is why we feel this group is particularly vulnerable. Their parents are worrying about paying the rent and buying the groceries and clothes. They don’t have extra money to spend on art, entertainment or any kind of socializing for the child. These children really need that, especially in their own language to keep up their social skills. A lot of them don’t speak English and it’s hard for them to make a friend. The biggest gift that this initiative can provide these children is an opportunity to make friends and have friendships, which is very important for a happy childhood.”
Every family with a special needs child in the program has reported a “rollback” because of the war, she says. “They’ve lost many years of hard work establishing skills – any skills — because first they had the war and then all sorts of relocations.”
Children in the program who do not have special needs have also been impacted by the war, she says. Toddlers often do not talk and cling to their parents. Upon arrival in Canada, both the children and their parents are sensitive to loud noises, thinking they might be explosions.
Ms. Zur says the children aren’t the only ones to benefit from the program; their parents do, too.
“Most of our volunteers are newcomers as well, and they embrace the opportunity to be able to give back to their community because they’ve received help and charity,” she says. “Now they’re able to do something themselves and they feel good about it. Also, it’s an opportunity to have a community and make some friends, a sense of belonging somewhere. They’ve left their friends and social networks behind, and they’re lonely.”
Both Ms. Zur and Archdeacon Mackison hope that other Anglican churches will host the program as well. St. George on Yonge has already agreed to.
“I’m really excited about the prospect of this ministry expanding and growing, and that there be generous, open spaces provided by Anglican churches on subway lines that are accessible to everyone,” says Archdeacon Mackison. “It’s been such a blessing to our community. When you see the pictures and hear the stories behind them, the joy on their faces and the suffering and sadness they’ve come through – it’s very poignant. Their joy has come from great suffering and you just hope and pray they’ll find a place here in Canada and regain and recapture some of what was lost.”
As its name implies, Creative Inclusion is for all Ukrainian children who have come to Canada because of the war, irrespective of their faith or cultural background. “Ukraine is very diverse and not everybody there is Christian,” explains Ms. Zur. “We have Jewish and Muslim people and mixed marriages, so it’s important that the program is held in a place that is spiritual but will not restrict people coming in from other faiths, that will celebrate the diversity of the people.”
For information about hosting the Creative Inclusion program at your church, contact Liz Zur at [email protected].
Camp helps kids
Gift a Child a Summer is a further initiative for children fleeing the war in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Youth Association, working under the umbrella of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, is once again hosting newly arrived children at Camp Veselka near Acton, Ontario. Camp Veselka is both a day camp for up to 150 new arrivals and a sleepover camp that integrates 50-75 youngsters who have been in Canada for six months or longer. The camp is organized and staffed by volunteers committed to the cause of welcoming these children in a safe environment where they can begin to forget the horrors that many of them have witnessed. The Ukrainian Youth Association is looking for donors who will help subsidize costs. For details, contact Natalya Schturyn, [email protected].