Through the eyes of newcomers to small-town Manitoba, Canada offers peace, safety

Karina Havina is working hard to learn English — the first step on the path to her dream of starting a manicure business and becoming a Canadian citizen.

“My name is Karina and I am happy to be here,” she writes, then reads, in English.

Havina, 22, is one of the dozens of Ukrainians who have fled war and are now in Altona, a small community in southern Manitoba.

She’s among the newcomers who say they want to remind local residents how lucky they are to live in Canada, despite its history of abuses involving Indigenous people and other ethnic groups.

She left Ukraine three weeks after the war began in February, reluctantly leaving her 19-year-old brother and mother behind.

Havina spent several months in Poland before her authorization for emergency travel was approved. She arrived in Canada on May 10, and is now living with her aunt, Nelli Voloshanavskiy.

“She was really scared the day when [the war started] … especially when the airplane starts to go around the city,” said Voloshanavskiy, who translated questions and answers for Havina in a recent interview.

“They feel like maybe they all just bomb them and everyone will die. So she thought it will be better … to move to safety.”

Havina is slowly adjusting to the peace and quiet of the agricultural community, her aunt said, “but she still worry, of course, about her mom and her family.… [She] said, ‘I don’t know if I will see her again, if I will see him again.'”

Giving back

Voloshanavskiy is also a relative newcomer. She started a new life in Altona five years ago, and is now helping others do the same.

She said she’s grateful for the opportunity and welcome she has received.

“When I saw some families like that, they have more problem than I have, so I feel like I really want to help them. I really want to give them a chance to start their life in a better way,” she said.

That’s why she’s volunteering with another Altona resident, Callum Morrison, who is helping resettle refugees.

One of his duties is organizing the donation depot in the Altona Mall, where local residents have been dropping off furniture, mattresses, dishes and bedding — some of the things going into homes being outfitted for the newcomers.

A man talks with two women in an open warehouse space, with bags and boxes in the background.
Voloshanavskiy and Havina meet with Callum Morrison, an Altona resident who is helping resettle newcomer families. They are in the donation depot, where people have been dropping off furniture and household goods to fill homes for the refugees. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

Many residents in the town of about 4,300 have Mennonite ancestors who also fled what is now Ukraine, escaping war and persecution, so “they always do what they can to help,” Morrison said.

The influx of newcomers also breaks some of the stereotypes of rural Mennonite communities, he said.

“Sometimes people will think out here, we might be closed-minded, we might not be open to change.

“But really, it’s showing that even in these little places, Canada is not just one thing. We’re many different peoples and … we’re coming together to support those who need it.”

Altona may not be the destination that’s top of mind for many newcomers, but it has one thing most are looking for — jobs.

The printing press is always running at Friesens, one of Canada’s largest printers of books and among Altona’s biggest employers.

A third of its 600 employees were not born in Canada. The company has lots of work and a career development process for Ukrainian refugees now arriving, said Odia Reimer, Friesens’ vice-president of people and culture.

“We’re looking for people who want to work,” she said.

A woman stands in a hallway with brightly coloured posters lining the wall.
Odia Reimer, vice-president of people and culture at Friesens in Altona, says a third of the printing business’s employees were born in another country, and Friesens continues to recruit newcomers, (Karen Pauls/CBC)

Friesens will offer them a place to live, arrange phone and internet, and help them get their Manitoba health card and social insurance number, said Reimer.

Newcomer employees are also teamed up with a corporate and community mentor.

“We kind of set them up in all sorts of ways to make sure that they have success when they land in Altona,” Reimer said, adding the goal is to make them feel like part of a family.

“It’s really fun to see how people prosper and how they find a home here.”

Must see Canada ‘through the eyes of all people’

Residents and businesses of Altona have sponsored about 300 refugees from war-torn countries in the last 15 years through the non-profit group Build a Village, according to Ray Loewen, the organization’s founder.

“They’ve come from Congo, from Sudan, from Syria, Iraq, Venezuela, Colombia,” said Loewen, whose group helps support refugee families in the area.

“It’s improved the community greatly.”

A woman stands behind a toddler while a man stands beside her holding an infant. Ray Loewen stands to the left of the family.
Ray Loewen of Build a Village with a family who arrived in Altona from Burundi, via Uganda, two months ago. Before that, they spent five years in a refugee camp. In their first day of English classes, they wanted to learn how to say, ‘Canada is very good,’ says Loewen. (Submitted by Ray Loewen)

The newcomers have broadened the community’s worldview and given them a new perspective on their home in Canada — one that sometimes contrasts with the reality in this country, he said.

“Every time we talk to newcomer families about their experience, it is impossible for us to imagine the horrors that they have endured as a result of war or other things they have had to deal with,” Loewen said.

“When we see Canada for the first time again through the eyes of a refugee family, we see a country that is mostly peaceful, mostly safe and a great place to live.”

However, it’s also difficult to imagine the horrors Indigenous people have been, and continue to be, subjected to in Canada, said Loewen, pointing to residential schools and the recent discoveries of what are believed to be unmarked graves at many sites.

“For Canada to truly be a great nation for all, we need to see ourselves and our country through the eyes of all people,” he said.

For now, Karina Havina is looking forward to seeing some fireworks on Canada Day — something banned in Ukraine since Russia invaded the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

“She says she’s really happy to be here,” Voloshanavskiy said. “She’s thankful to everyone who helps her to be here right now.”