Fort City Church sponsors Ukrainian refugee family, but their six-month-old son is caught in a backlog

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Fort City Church is raising funds to support a refugee family from Ukraine who has been trying to reach Canada since early April. But Pastor Doug Doyle said the application process has been “a slow and horrible experience” as Canada’s immigration and refugee system swells under a backlog.

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The federal government approved the entry of parents, Artem and Sofia Bandurko, and Sofia’s mother, Svitlana Kazantseva. But the Bandurkos’ infant son, Josef, is stuck in bureaucratic limbo.

After spending hours queuing at the Canadian Embassy in Warsaw, the family have been told that the necessary approvals for the baby will take six weeks.

“I was probably naive enough to think they learned from the past and didn’t want a repeat of what happened to get the translators out of Afghanistan,” Doyle said in an interview. “Bureaucracy is what it is. Everything that was supposed to be simple was not. it is not as smooth as the government claims to be.

The church’s first experience with the refugee system began in 2016 when they began the process of bringing the Alkarnakes, a refugee family from Syria, to Fort McMurray. Doyle said the process faced significant bureaucratic hurdles, which were compounded when the federal government announced it would accept 30,000 Syrian refugees.

The application for the family risked getting lost in the crowd. Fortunately, a Liberal staffer in Ottawa whom Doyle knew was able to speed up the process by “pushing some of the right buttons.” The family arrived in Fort McMurray in early 2017. Doyle credits Laila Goodridge, Conservative MP for Fort McMurray-Cold Lake, for getting Josef’s paperwork into the refugee system.

“We wouldn’t even have received an email for Josef if we hadn’t asked Laila to go to the immigration office and push a few buttons,” Doyle said. “We had to use our political means again.”

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Goodridge spoke about the family’s fate in Parliament on Thursday. She said it was good news to hear applications had been approved for adults, but asked ‘what is the minister scared of with a six-month-old baby?’

Marie-France Lalone, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Immigration, replied that 24,000 Ukrainians have found their way to Canada since the start of the war in February.

Since April, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) has a backlog of 2.1 million people who have applied for citizenship, temporary and permanent residency and refugee status.

“Getting a passport is already a mess for the people who are here. It was definitely quite an ordeal,” Doyle said.

Ukrainian refugees walk after crossing the Ukraine-Poland border, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Medyka, Poland April 10, 2022. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger
Ukrainian refugees walk after crossing the Ukraine-Poland border, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Medyka, Poland April 10, 2022. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

The priority is to settle the family once in Canada

The family is from Melitopol, a city in southeastern Ukraine occupied by the Russian army. Doyle said it took the family four attempts to escape. At one point the soldiers threatened to shoot the family if they were caught running away.

The family now lives in a house in Warsaw belonging to a local church closely linked to the Christian Missionary Alliance, of which the church in Fort City is a part. They live in one room because the house is crowded with other refugees.

Artem, who had experience running a grocery store before the war, is looking forward to working once the family is settled and comfortable with English. Doyle said the two communicated via Google Translate.

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For now, the church’s priority is to raise funds to support the family so they can spend their first year learning English and settling into their new life in Canada.

The family will live in a Timberlea townhouse owned by Wood Buffalo Housing, and the church is procuring clothing and furniture. The church is also looking for a vehicle, arranging dental and medical care, and finding emotional and spiritual support for the family.

Fort City Church will be supported by the Ukrainian Cultural Committee and local support groups for refugees and newcomers. The church is focusing on caring for this family before considering sponsoring more refugees.

“We have been walking with the Alkarnake family for about six years now. They did very well here and it’s a good story,” Doyle said. “It took time and commitment to get them to where they are, and we will give that same time and commitment to this next family.”

Donations to the Fort City Church Refugee Campaign can be made on their website.

[email protected]

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Jerry B. Hatch