TORONTO — Sabina Abilova and Andrii Koziura sit at the dinner table in their basement apartment, laptops open, searching for jobs that might help them pay for next month's rent.
The Ukrainian newcomers arrived in Toronto just a few weeks ago, looking to escape the conflict in their country, and have been burning through their savings as they're faced with the high cost of living in the city.
"The prices here are quite high," Abilova, 28, says in an interview. "If we don't find a job, we won't be able to stay here for long."
The cost of housing is proving to be one of the top issues for Ukrainian newcomers arriving under a special federal program announced in March that permits them to work or study in Canada for three years.
Abilova and Koziura were on vacation in Argentina when Russia began invading Ukraine in February. The couple decided to apply to come to Canada since Abilova's sister already lived in Toronto, having arrived as a student eight years ago.
Being approved under the program was relatively easy, but getting information and support on matters like housing, public transit and employment has been tough, Abilova says.
"In Ukraine, we had a very like good, normal life and now we have to go and find help everywhere, to ask for help, discounts and everything and it's not a good situation," she says.
"It's difficult because I wasn't expecting for Canada to be like that."
Abilova and Koziura now live in a two-bedroom basement apartment in west Toronto with Abilova's mother and 13-year-old brother, who already had visitor visas for Canada before the war began.
They pay $2,000 in rent per month and are currently relying on savings to pay for their expenses, Koziura says.
The couple has applied for a $600 monthly social support payment from the Ontario government and a one-time $3,000 payment from the federal government while looking for jobs, he says.
Koziura, 27, says he used to work as a software product manager in Ukraine and is hoping to find a job in his field.
"Our initial plan was to come here, stay here for a few months and decide where are we going to stay, how easy it is to stay in Canada, and we haven't managed to find a job yet," he says.
"The situation with the war is quite tricky. We don't know when it ends. And we don't know what our long-term plans are. Are going to receive the citizenship here ... are we going to get back home?"
Ihor Michalchyshyn, the executive director of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, says housing is the number one challenge facing Ukrainian newcomers, especially in Ontario.
Refugee settlement agencies funded by the federal government are not technically allowed to help Ukrainian newcomers with housing because those arriving under the special program are not recognized as refugees, he says.
"They don't have access to the same, let's say, full suites or full services that a refugee from anywhere would have," he says.
"We might call them refugees, (but) they're not technically, legally in the eyes of the government-funded agencies, refugees."
His organization and the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants wrote last month to Federal Immigration Minister Sean Fraser calling on him to allow settlement agencies to use federal funds to support Ukrainian newcomers' housing costs.
Michalchyshyn says his organization has also been pushing for income support for Ukrainian newcomers.
A spokeswoman for Fraser says the federal government has a program that provides Ukrainian newcomers with one-time financial assistance of $3,000 per adult and $1,500 per child.
"These funds will help Ukrainian nationals and their family members meet their basic needs—such as transportation and longer-term housing—as they arrive in communities across Canada and find a job," Aidan Strickland wrote in a statement.
"We recognize that major urban centres across Canada are currently facing difficulties in securing temporary accommodations this summer, as well as housing challenges from both an affordability and an availability standpoint."
Janet Dench, the executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees says the special program for Ukrainians has the advantage of being open to an unlimited number of people but doesn't come with the support government-sponsored refugees typically receive.
"From a policy perspective, it has the advantages of being really quick and being open," she says in an interview.
"(Ukrainian) people may be 'okay, well, we'll come to Canada and we'll be able to have all of our needs met,' but they weren't necessarily informed or realizing that all they were getting is a work permit and a visitor visa. They're not getting a whole system of support."
Michalchyshyn, of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, says the housing situation for Ukrainian newcomers is more challenging in Ontario than other provinces. The average monthly rental price for a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto was $2,133 in June, data from Rentals.ca showed, compared to $1,538 in Montreal and $1,669 in Halifax.
"Probably more than 60 per cent of (Ukrainian) people in Canada are arriving in Toronto, to the GTA, and then ... struggling to find housing of any kind," he says.
Ukrainian community groups, including churches and community agencies and organizations, are trying to find host families, empty apartments and emergency shelter spaces, he says.
"There's just a very high demand and very low availability," he says.
Ontario Labour Minister Monte McNaughton, who's responsible for immigration, says his department is working with other government departments and municipalities to support those Ukrainians.
"Certainly, it's a challenge," he says in an interview.
"We're working with our municipal partners ... to identify the housing inventory so these people have safe shelter and a safe place here in Ontario."
According to the federal government, 55,488 Ukrainians arrived in Canada between Jan. 1 and June 26.
The government says it received 343,283 applications under the new program for Ukrainians between March 17 and June 28, and 146,461 were approved.
- with files from Holly McKenzie-Sutter.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 10, 2022.
Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press