Ukraine newcomers in Edmonton face financial and mental health challenges as war rages on

Mikhalo Fortach and his family arrived in Edmonton from Ukraine on Feb. 6, 2023. Fortach says he has an engineering degree but is having difficulty finding a job.  (Submitted by Mikhalo Fortach - image credit)
Mikhalo Fortach and his family arrived in Edmonton from Ukraine on Feb. 6, 2023. Fortach says he has an engineering degree but is having difficulty finding a job. (Submitted by Mikhalo Fortach - image credit)

After barely getting settled in Edmonton, Ukrainian newcomer Mikhalo Fortach has spent his first two weeks in Canada delivering his resume to different energy companies, both in-person and online.

"I need to pay for bills. I need to pay for everything," he said in an interview with CBC News after arriving with his family to Edmonton on Feb. 6.

"I'm here with my wife and three children, so I cannot just stay at home for two months and wait."

Fortach is one of over 20,000 Ukrainians who have arrived in Alberta since the war began. Approximately 7,000 live in Edmonton, according to the Ukrainian Canadian Congress's Alberta chapter.

Friday marks one year since Russia launched an all-out invasion of Ukraine, dubbed a "special military operation" by president Vladimir Putin.

UCC-APC president Orysia Boychuk says the majority of newcomers have low-paying jobs or no jobs and are living at or below the poverty level.

"They are trying to make ends meet, but they're realizing that it's really hard to make it," she said.

"Most are grabbing whatever [jobs] they can and as quickly as they can."

The UCC-APC established an online job board, but because many Ukranians don't speak fluent English and Canadian industries often don't recognize Ukrainian education and training credentials, opportunities are limited for many newcomers, according to Boychuk.

Additionally, Ukrainians are not considered refugees under Canada's immigration programs. The federal government created a special program to fast-track immigration for Ukrainians called the Canada-Ukraine authorization for emergency travel.

Through the program, Ukrainian newcomers can apply for a one-time assistance payment of $3,000 per adult and $1,500 per child. Newcomers arriving under this program cannot apply for supports available to refugees through the Resettlement Assistance Program, which include one-time allowances, housing supplements, and other supports which can exceed $3,000.

Fortach says he has a degree in petroleum engineering but needs Canadian accreditation to start working in his field.

He spent several months last year working construction jobs in England while his family stayed in Ukraine and waited for Canadian visas.

"It is a very big support for me because if not [for] Great Britain, I came here without money," he said.

Upon arrival at the Edmonton International Airport, Fortach was met by Oleh and Nadiia Durkach, newcomers who moved to Edmonton from the same city, Ivano-Frankivsk, in western Ukraine.

Oleh is a trained chef and he's found part-time work at the Norwood Legion as a cook. Nadiia worked as an ophthalmologist in Ukraine. She's currently working as an optometric assistant.

Getting her Canadian optometry license would take years and cost thousands of dollars, Durkach said in an interview with CBC News.

"It's big barriers between me and my beloved job."

Submitted by Nadiia Durkach
Submitted by Nadiia Durkach

Because of the hurdles they face, Calgary psychologist Bill Lebedovich believes many Ukrainians in Alberta are struggling with mental health.

Lebedovich is retired, but he's leading the Ukrainian Mental Health Supports Collective, a group of Alberta psychologists volunteering to provide free therapy to newcomers.

"There's more demand than we can handle," he said.

"Doing this on a volunteer basis, it just will not be sustainable… It burns out the volunteers because they already have their full-time practices."

More supports that address mental health challenges are essential, so Ukrainian newcomers can address the trauma they carry, according to both Lebedovich and the UCC-APC.

Despite the challenges in front of them, both Fortach and Durkach say they're optimistic about the future.

"God will help me because he always helps us, helps my family," Fortach said.

"There are no rockets," Durkach said. "It's the main thing... I'm [not] focusing on the negative."

Ukrainian newcomers can learn more about the supports available to them at the Ukrainian Canadian Congress's Alberta chapter.