Ukrainian children stuck in Mexico after visa issues will be able to return to Canada soon, guardian says

CBC News

Julia Wong · CBC News · Posted: Feb 16, 2023

The legal guardian of three Ukrainian children who became stuck in Mexico during a trip learned Thursday she will be able to get the kids back to Canada where they fled during the war, after CBC News made multiple inquiries with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). 

The children — a nine-year-old boy and two 12-year-old girls — have been in Mexico since Dec. 11, when they arrived in Puerto Vallarta with their Canadian guardian, Olga Ostapiv, for what was supposed to be a week-long vacation. 

After two months of fighting to bring them back to Canada, Ostapiv said immigration officials instructed her Thursday to take the children and their passports to Mexico City, where the paperwork will be processed to finally get the children home. She said she hopes to have the children back in Edmonton early next week.

Ostapiv, who is Ukrainian, originally took in the children and became their legal guardian because she wanted to help people from her homeland, which she left in 2009. One of the girls is her sister's granddaughter, while the other two are the children of family friends. 

The children arrived in Canada in May and Ostapiv said they had been adjusting to their new lives in Edmonton.

"They are very sweet, good behaviour kids," she said.

Her family was slated to take the trip to Mexico, which had been postponed because of the pandemic, and Ostapiv said she couldn't bear to leave the kids behind, so she decided to take them along.

Visas only allowed one-time entry to Canada

But when they tried to board the flight home on Dec. 18, Ostapiv said she was told they could not return to Canada.

The children originally arrived in Canada on emergency travel visas, which Ostapiv did not realize only allowed for one-time entry into the country. 

When she realized the mistake, Ostapiv set about submitting new via applications for the three children, which she filed on Dec. 22, but there was no response. 

"Every day, twice a day, I'm going to my computer. I'm checking. Maybe it's some news," she said Wednesday, recalling how they became stuck in Mexico, moving from hotel to hotel as they awaited word on their fate.

Ostapiv stayed there with them until the beginning of January, when she had to return to Edmonton for work. Another relative is now in Mexico with the children. 

As the issue dragged on, Ostapiv became desperate and says she even considered sending them back to Ukraine.

"When I told this [to] the kids, they [were] looking at me, 'Please don't send us back home,'" she said.

"I'm doing my best to bring them home … to fix my mistake," Ostapiv said, with tears in her eyes. "It's not anyone's fault. It's only my fault."

CBC News spoke with the children over video chat in Puerto Vallarta earlier this week.

"We really want to return to Canada because it is very difficult for us," said 12-year-old Yuliia.

"We miss our friends and family," said 12-year-old Anastasiia.

Frustration from those helping

Mike Thomas, a Ukrainian relief organizer who has been helping Ostapiv with the situation, said he's been talking to MPs and reaching out to Immigration Minister Sean Fraser on the family's behalf.

"Enough is enough, you know? We realize there's a mistake made and everybody understands that," Thomas said Wednesday, before receiving news that the children could return to Canada.

"But we have a five-minute solution to this problem … The minister signs a letter, they can issue a travel document instantaneously and [the kids] could be on the next flight home."

CBC News requested an interview with Fraser while Ostapiv was still awaiting a decision, but Fraser's spokesperson said the minister was not able to speak to specific cases.

In a statement, the IRCC said it processes applications as quickly as possible, but complex applications may take longer.