Since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine war, Salvation Army ministries in Canada have opened their doors and services to newcomers from Ukraine, including at the Centre of Hope in Calgary, which operates a Ukrainian welcome centre.
The centre opened in December 2022, 10 months after Russia invaded Ukraine, forcing more than 197,000 Ukrainians to flee and seek a new life in Canada. The Salvation Army’s welcome centre invites Ukrainians to come and receive practical support, connection and friendly conversation.
“Ukrainians are strong people,” says Maryna Skorobogatko, the program co-ordinator at the welcome centre, who came to Canada from Ukraine in 2019. “Sometimes they just need emotional support. It means a lot to them that I understand their situation and can help them reach their goals.”
Help and Hope
Before coming to Canada, Skorobogatko was a human resources manager in Ukraine. When the war began in 2022, non-profit organizations such as The Salvation Army had a shortage of people who knew Russian and Ukrainian, so Skorobogatko applied to volunteer as a translator for charities. With her volunteering experience, she applied at The Salvation Army and was hired as the program co-ordinator for Ukraine support.
“In Ukraine we don’t have many organizations like The Salvation Army who help people who need help and hope,” says Skorobogatko. “For me, it is interesting because I can help people and almost every day I learn something new.”
The Ukrainians who visit the Calgary welcome centre appreciate that Skorobogatko understands them. Like them, she is a Ukrainian immigrant who came to Canada unable to speak English and without a job. “I tell them that I understand because I was in the same shoes as they are in now,” says Skorobogatko, who is able to share resources within and outside of The Salvation Army, and give them practical advice while connecting with them on a personal level.
At the welcome centre, Skorobogatko provides clients with support and resources for whatever they need, including food, clothing, bikes, sports equipment and other services such as referrals for housing. Often, people from the community call to donate furniture or other goods that can be given to families and individuals who need them.
The greatest struggles faced by the vast majority of newcomers is their limited English, along with finding accommodation and work. “They might have a good background back home and they want to start their career here in Canada, but their education is not enough. For example, engineers in Canada have to have local education,” explains Skorobogatko. “We help them make new connections, network and find a job in their field.”
She speaks from experience, for example, explaining how volunteer positions can help lead people into more permanent paid positions—a system that is not as popular in Ukraine as it is in Canada. “I tell them, if you want to continue your career here, try to find a volunteer job. You can network and get experience, and learn about Canadian culture,” says Skorobogatko.
Through the welcome centre, clients can access English classes and a Ukrainian career adviser who teaches resumé writing, the differences between Canadian and Ukrainian hiring practices and culture, and how to adjust their Ukrainian knowledge and experiences to a Canadian career landscape.
Regardless of their level of need when arriving at the welcome centre, most clients are experiencing the emotional toll caused by war, leaving their homes, and adjusting to life in Canada with new people and cultures. At the welcome centre, Skorobogatko hosts regular group meetings for female clients to come together, talk, have tea and desserts, cry and share their stories. They find comfort through meeting new people who are in the same situation.
“They tell me, ‘It is helpful because we can find new friends. We can share our pain.’ They feel relieved to tell someone their problems and issues, and I just listen,” Skorobogatko says.
One Ukrainian mother wanted to do something for her children who played chess professionally back home but have not been able to continue since they left. She asked Skorobogatko to help, and together they organized a chess tournament at the library, bringing together clients, Centre of Hope staff and their children. “These activities help Ukrainian kids integrate faster to Canadian life because they can play with Canadian kids,” says Skorobogatko. This year, Ukrainian children will also have the opportunity to attend The Salvation Army’s Pine Lake Camp in Alberta, where they can have a Canadian summer camp experience and develop friendships with other kids.
Many of the clients who arrived at the centre when it first opened still call Skorobogatko just to talk. “They ask how I am doing, tell me they found a job, or just want friendly conversation,” she says. Though they may not require month-to-month support, they still seek the connection, group meetings and a listening ear.
Going forward, the Ukrainian welcome centre will continue to provide more time for connection and emotional support through future programs for kids, parents and families.