An echo of home: Ukrainian Orthodox Church helps newcomers settle

The exterior of the Assumption Of The Blessed Virgin Cathedral on Byron. The sky is grey and a small bit of snow is seen in the grass.
The Assumption Of The Blessed Virgin Cathedral on Byron Ave, has felt like home for Ukrainian newcomers to Canada. Photo by Charlie Senack

By Charlie Senack

Father Taras Kinash knew 2022 would be a year of uncertainty and adventure, but nothing could have prepared the Ukrainian father of two for what was to come. 

Last year, the priest at the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral on Byron Avenue suddenly passed away. In a last-ditch effort to save this struggling parish, the church offered the position to Taras, who was far away serving at a church in the Kyiv region.

He accepted the job in November 2021, knowing the road to a visa (amidst other paperwork) would take months. But then Russia invaded his homeland, adding unimaginable complications to an already challenging journey. 

“Thankfully the Canadian government initiated the Canadian Ukrainian Emergency Travel program, which allowed newcomers to come,” Taras said. “The visas were made very very fast and free of charge. But still the biggest part was crossing the border.”

Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 are legally barred from leaving the country, and are required to stay in case they are needed for the battle against Russia. Only women, children, and seniors are allowed to flee. With help from the congregation, Taras fought for an exception so he could work in Canada. The paperwork needed came through and he was on his way. 

“I packed my family into my car, drove through half of Ukraine, half of Poland, and then all of Slovakia and Austria,” he recounted. “It was a three-day trip with a two-and-a-half year old child, a 10-year-old child, my wife, and her father.”

After their escape, Taras and his family boarded a plane to Canada and arrived April 21, a day before Ukrainian Orthodox Easter. 

“I was divided because I felt like I needed to be there (in Ukraine) to protect my country and my people. But I realized I’d be more useful here,” Taras said.

Father Kinash poses for a photo in his church.
Father Teras Kinash arrived in Ottawa from Ukraine this past April. Photo by Charlie Senack

The local Ukrainian Orthodox Church had been supporting their country and community since the war broke out Feb. 24. 

The downstairs hall was turned into a command center where items were collected for Ukrainian newcomers, and for shipment to Ukraine. Markets, bake sales, and craft fairs were held almost weekly with proceeds going toward war efforts.

Once Taras arrived, he and his wife, Olya Kinash, organized English-language classes and job fairs to help refugees get settled. 

“I realized that I had to do something so I wouldn’t go crazy because I was so stressed and emotional all of the time,” Olya said. “I used to be an ESL teacher in Ukraine so I organized the English course for newcomers at the beginners level.”

She and the parish teamed up with Marriott Hotels, Amazon, the Canadian Diagnostic Imaging Network, and retirement homes, among others businesses to give jobs to the local Ukrainians. 

“We had over 200 people come to find jobs and 15 different employers participated,” said Olya. “We tried to cover different fields and different industries.”

The congregation also offers psychological support for newcomers who experienced trauma in Ukraine. Taras said they focused on supporting women who fled to Canada with their children, forced to leave their husbands behind.

“Women (have) recieved healing for post traumatic syndrome because they came from actual bombings and live in shelters without heating or water,” he said. “It’s all covered by donations from different organizations and people who are looking to help the newcomers.”

The exterior of the Ukrainian Church. Many beautiful colours are in the detailed artwork seen on the walls.
Father Teras Kinash said his congregation has more than tripled this year. Photo by Charlie Senack

In May, the church’s work was recognized by then Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, who stopped by for a service and pierogi making. The royal couple met with local Ukrainians and heard their stories.

Before the war, about 30 people attended services at the cathedral. Now with so many newcomers, there are upwards of 100. Taras said he hopes the church can be a space that feels like home to all uprooted Ukrainians.

“It’s a cultural shock when you first come to Canada,” he said. “You wake up with bad dreams. We want to make sure people stay spiritually healthy both physically and mentally.”

As the year comes to a close, Taras said the congregation will ramp up efforts to help the Ukrainian community both abroad and at home with more workshops and sales.

This past year “was full of pain, full of fear, and full of surprises,” Taras said. “God was the only main power that was driving me through all these terrible circumstances.”

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