Growing wave of unaccompanied minors among Ukrainians fleeing to Canada

CBC News

Alistair Steele · CBC News · Posted: Nov 02, 2022

Early on the morning of Feb. 24, 16-year-old Denys was jolted awake by the rumble of Ukrainian tanks racing down a nearby highway to head off the Russian invasion of his country.

Within days, the enemy had broken through and entered the teen's hometown of Bucha, the Kyiv region community that would soon become synonymous with the brutality of the occupiers.

"They were shooting people, they were killing just families who wanted to evacuate," Denys said. "If they didn't like them they would just shoot them."

Denys, his parents, 21-year-old brother, grandmother, aunt and 19-year-old cousin crammed into the family's small car and escaped just in time, making the tense 18-hour journey to stay with relatives in Ukraine's central Khmelnytskyi region, about 300 kilometres to the west. They remained there until May, returning home only after the Russians had been pushed out by Ukrainian forces.

Even with the invaders gone, the constant threat of rocket attacks loomed and life back in Bucha was uneasy. School, which had been going well for the sociable teenager, had moved online because of the war.

One day, a friend told Denys she was planning to apply for a special visa to escape to Canada. She urged him to do the same, pointing him to a Facebook group called Canada – Host Ukrainians. Intrigued, Denys posted a message to see what would happen.

"And then Sarah found me," he said.

Sarah, who lives with her husband and 14-year-old son in Greater Vancouver, had been preparing to host a family of five from Ukraine, but when their travel plans fell through she visited the Facebook page to see if anyone else needed help. 

Denys's plea for a host in Sarah's area, preferably one with dogs, grabbed her attention. So did his obvious youth.

"I just put it in perspective: What would I want for my child if this was my situation?" Sarah said.

CBC has agreed to withhold both her and Denys's surnames to protect the teen's family, who remain in Ukraine. (His male relatives are fighting age and therefore can't leave the country, and his female relatives have opted to stay in Bucha.)

Denys, whose surname CBC is protecting, says his friend in Ukraine helped him connect with his new host family in Canada.

A serious gap

According to volunteer groups and other agencies that have been scrambling to help resettle Ukrainians arriving under the federal government's Canada-Ukraine authorization for emergency travel (CUAET) program, Denys is one of potentially hundreds of teenagers who have arrived in this country alone.

There's very little in the way of post-arrival tracking, however, so Canadian authorities have no idea where they've all ended up. In an email to CBC, the volunteer administrators behind Canada – Host Ukrainians identified that as a serious gap.

They are all scattered. We get calls regularly about them, but we don't know where all of them are.- Liz Okai, Child Welfare Immigration Centre of Excellence

"From all our discussions with various government agencies and non-profits, it appears that the idea that unaccompanied minors would be coming to Canada was not anticipated beforehand. It's as though there's a disconnect between the issuing of the visas and the realization that these minors would then arrive and need help," they wrote.

The Facebook group, with more than 160,000 members, is the largest of its kind in Canada, but not the only one. Administrators say they've seen "well over" 100 unaccompanied minors pass through the group, and have directly intervened to help resettle more than 50 of those.

Most are 16 or 17, but some of the teens who have arrived alone are as young as 15.

"Despite our awareness being limited by cases seen within our group, the volumes we've dealt with are an indicator that the scope of the issue is quite large," the volunteers wrote.

Convincing his parents

Denys's case is among their success stories. First, the 16-year-old had to convince his parents to let him travel alone to live with a stranger more than 8,000 kilometres away. 

"They were like, 'No, you're not going anywhere," Denys said.

He'd been busily gathering the documents he needed to obtain the CUAET visa, which allows Ukrainians and their dependents to live, work and study as temporary residents of Canada for up to three years.

The Facebook group arranged a video call to introduce Sarah to Denys's father. A lawyer and translator were also on the call.

"He realized that they're good and they're not maniacs or something," Denys said. "After that, he realized that it is really a better option to do that, and we at least need like to give it a shot." 

They drew up a formal guardianship agreement to go with Denys's other travel documents, and Sarah's family offered to cover his airfare. But nearly three months after applying, Denys still didn't have his visa. 

"I was having a nervous breakdown like every day," recalled Sarah, who was placing daily phone calls to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). She finally contacted the office of her MP, Bonita Zarrillo, and within a couple days Denys had his visa.

He and his mother travelled by bus to Frankfurt, and on July 21 the teenager flew to Canada. With his notarized documents, Denys breezed through customs and finally met Sarah in person.

"I cried," Sarah said. "It was really good," Denys added.

No tracking, IRCC says

Volunteer groups and child welfare agencies worry that for every Denys, there's a teenager who doesn't have a safe place to stay once they arrive in Canada. While most have made some kind of arrangements before travelling, one agency was aware of a 17-year-old girl who only reached out for help days after her arrival.

The teens can legally travel alone, and IRCC says airlines and the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) are on the lookout for young travellers needing assistance. But immigration officials acknowledge they don't know how many are arriving alone, or where they end up.

"In cases where it's clear that minors intend to travel alone to Canada, IRCC officers review the application very carefully," the department told CBC in an email. "However, as CUAET applicants are not required to provide travel itineraries and given that travel plans can change, it is difficult for IRCC officers to confirm whether a minor intends to travel alone when assessing their application. As such, IRCC is not able to track the number of CUAET applications submitted by unaccompanied minors."

Instead, a Facebook group run by volunteers not only serves as a vital meeting place for hosts and new arrivals, but also conducts background checks, home visits and post-arrival tracking to ensure the matches go well. The group's administrators believe if they weren't doing it, no one would.

"Our main concern and the reason we have intervened in these cases is safety," they wrote. "We were faced with decisions to either let minors search for potential guardians on our group, intervene or deny their requests."

Teens have suffered trauma

When that early intervention doesn't take place, child welfare advocates say things can go badly.

"One of the things we have seen that is specific to CUAET is that some youth are uncomfortable where they are in host families, and they are moving … relatively quickly upon arrival. And so how are we tracking and knowing the movement of these children?" asked Danielle Ungara, a team leader with the Child Welfare Immigration Centre of Excellence (CWICE), which supports child welfare organizations across Ontario.

CWICE is attempting to keep tabs on the new arrivals, but can't be sure they're all accounted for.

"They are all scattered. We get calls regularly about them, but we don't know where all of them are. And so oversight would be good, just making sure that they're safe," said Liz Okai, also with CWICE.

Child welfare advocates are concerned some of the teens who are arriving from Ukraine need mental health support, but that need might not be immediately apparent.

"These youth have gone through a lot of trauma," Okai said. "They carry a lot. So they may go through a honeymoon phase, you know, in the first couple of months. They may come up with some issues or some behaviours that the host family might not be prepared for."

Call for centralized system

In those cases, the volunteers and agencies that are trying to keep track of the teenagers fear they could fall off their radar completely. They're calling for a comprehensive, centralized system for welcoming, supporting and safely housing the young Ukrainians.

"We need broad oversight and a collaboration of agencies to come together and do this right," Okai said.

Those who are trying to keep track note that while the number of unaccompanied minors arriving from Ukraine appears to be growing, so is the general awareness of the trend, and the need for action.

The federal government has commissioned CWICE and Jewish Immigrant Aid Services of Toronto to prepare a report on the subject, now in its final stages.

In the meantime, the system continues to rely mostly on volunteers, and the kindness of strangers like Sarah.

"We have been relying on their generosity to ensure these children are financially supported," the Facebook group administrators wrote. "This is not a viable long-term solution to address the issue of unsupported minors arriving in Canada."

'It's cool here'

Denys is already making himself at home with Sarah and her family, who converted a veranda into a bedroom to give their teenage guest his own private space.

His English is excellent, so Denys has had no trouble making new friends. Grade 11 is going "great," and he's formed a special bond with Lola, one of Sara's three chiweenies — a cross between the Chihuahua and Dachshund dog breeds.

Asked if he's homesick, Denys doesn't give the question much thought.

"Not really. I mean, it's cool here," he said. "I don't really want to [go] back right now because of the war."

For Sarah, there have been bureaucratic annoyances — they've been unable to access the $1,500 one-time support payment offered by the Canadian government, and they've learned they might have to travel to Edmonton to renew Denys's passport — but she has no regrets, either.

"I didn't see this happening but I'm super glad it did, and I would do it 10 times again," she said. "I would help anyone, anytime, but specifically a child."