With tens of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing their war-torn country for Canada, an Edmonton mother and daughter teamed up to help the new arrivals, who arrived with few belongings.
The two projects they co-founded, a free store and a food kitchen, are now bustling with activity, helping thousands of Ukrainian newcomers settle in their new home.
Janice Krissa-Moore and her daughter Jorgia, who have full-time jobs besides their Ukrainian assistance projects, were concerned that, with limited government support, something needed to be done to assist the new visitors. They arrive here from Ukraine with a Canadian work visa but – despite what many erroneously think – do not have refugee status so don’t qualify for refugee financial support.
Imagine starting over and having to replace everything in your home, the mother and daughter reasoned.
Krissa-Moore, who is of Ukrainian descent, recalls the family had some friends stuck in Ukraine at the outset of the war in February, 2022, including sleeping in cars and other temporary shelters waiting to cross the border into Poland after escaping Russian occupied territory.
“It was horrifying,” Krissa-Moore said. “They left with nothing.”
Her female friend in Ukraine told her: “It’s been 12 days and I have one pair of underwear.”
That helped trigger an impromptu request for local assistance, which produced about 400 pairs of underwear, Krissa-Moore remembers with a chuckle.
The mother-daughter duo launched a Free Store for Ukrainian Newcomers at a temporary site and then moved into a downtown Edmonton building provided rent-free by MacEwan University in the spring last year. The facility provides clothing, diapers, pillows, toys and household essentials at no charge to newcomers displaced by the war.
More recently, a second project, a Ukraine Kitchen by Free Store, opened its doors in northeast Edmonton, after operating temporarily at Cook County Saloon.
Pre-ordered and on-site Ukrainian food is sold, providing wages for a team of about 14 kitchen workers, who proudly dole out plates of cabbage rolls, perogies, borscht and desserts.
“It’s like we pressed the refresh button on Ukrainian food,” said Krissa-Moore. “Everything is handmade or handcrafted.”
Community support has been overwhelming. Donor-supplied items valued at between $100,000 to $200,000 per week fill the Free Store, aiding about 400 families, or an estimated 1,200 people, weekly. Seventy volunteers work at the store.
It’s estimated nearly 200,000 Ukrainians have come to Canada since the war broke out, about 30,000 of them ending up in Alberta.
One of them, Lilia Vovk, is now the volunteer co-ordinator at the Free Store. She arrived in Edmonton with her three children and her mother – the youngest child only five months old -- in May last year after first escaping to Poland within days of the invasion by Russia, leaving her husband behind.
“All Ukraine was under attack,” she said. “We did not know what was going on. It was very scary for us.”
Before moving to Edmonton, Vovk spent the first seven months in Alberta with a host family on a farm near the hamlet of Thorhild, 86 kilometres north of the Alberta capital. On a recent weekday, she was helping at the Free Store after the doors opened to a lineup of about 25 to 30 people waiting outside, hoping to find items for their new accommodations.
“The Free Store is a very important and incredible place for (newcomer) Ukrainians, because they have nothing for kids, for bedding, for the kitchen. Many of them are looking for jobs and they need to have something like this place.”
Vovk’s mother works at the Ukrainian Kitchen. Her husband, who initially stayed behind to help Ukrainians fleeing the country, has now joined her in Edmonton.
Ukrainian Kitchen manager Yulia Shabava also left her homeland shortly after the invasion.
She said the “modern” Ukrainian food served here – for instance using sweet rather than sour cabbage in cabbage rolls -- is helping fulfill the dream of settling in a new land for herself and the other newcomers.
“This small business helps us have a job, help our families, help our dream to stay here in a peaceful country,” she said. “And every person who comes to make a purchase helps us to be closer to our dream.”
Of course, that dream also includes an end to the war in Ukraine.