Hearts and homes are being opened to Ukrainians arriving in Toronto

Sofia Balaba and Vova Saykov, who recently fled Ukraine, have been staying with Rabbi Jarrod Grover in Toronto

Over the last few months, Ukrainians fleeing their country in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion have begun to enter Canada.

And many of them are finding gracious hosts in the Canadian Jewish community.

Rabbi Jarrod Grover, of Toronto’s Beth Tikvah Synagogue, and his family are hosting a young Ukrainian couple named Vova Saykov and Sofia Balaba. A friend of Rabbi Grover’s recommended he join a Facebook group for Canadians considering hosting Ukrainians entering the country, and he and his wife Carmela were immediately taken by the stories they saw posted in the group.

“I was looking at the different situations, just because I’m curious, and I start looking at these stories that reminded me of Holocaust stories,” Rabbi Grover said. “When you see the pictures of the people and you start listening to what they’re looking for and where they’re coming from, it’s very hard not to be moved. Carmela is a descendant of Holocaust survivors, and her family was saved by good people, righteous people. So it spoke to us.”

Eventually, Rabbi Grover and Carmela found a post by Saykov and Balaba, who are in their late teens, and one word jumped out at them immediately: Jewish.

Saykov was the director of education at the Jewish Agency in Kharkiv. He and Sofia bounced around across Europe after fleeing Ukraine, going to France, Germany, Poland, Hungary and Portugal before eventually making their way to Canada. In Budapest, Saykov volunteered with the Jewish Agency, helping arriving Ukrainians get settled there.

When Rabbi Grover saw their post on Facebook, the couple was due to arrive in Canada in three days, with no place to stay—their planned host had to back out at the last minute. So he and Carmela reached out right away and offered their place. The couple arrived about three weeks ago, and fit right into the family dynamic, Rabbi Grover said.

“They really are an adorable couple, 19 and 18 years old. And I’m telling you, we’re in love with them. We are in love with this couple… These young people are incredible. They’ve been through a terrible, terrible time.” he said. “They’re leaving now because they already got an apartment. And Vova’s parents are coming tonight. They’re coming from Germany.”

“But imagine, their family is coming tonight. And they said, ‘We’re going to stay with you for a few more days. We love living with you.’ And it’s not because the living arrangements are so good. It’s just because this is a place where we’ve included them in everything. They become our family. And they said, ‘We just feel so human being here, you want to understand us and get to know us. And we love being with you and your kids.’”

Rabbi Grover said the whole Beth Tikvah community, as well as his network of friends, has pitched in helping Saykov and Balaba adjust as much as possible. While it was important to provide them a place to stay, he added, that is the bare minimum of what people in their situation need.

The two biggest things, according to Rabbi Grover, are kindness and guidance. Kindness because of how difficult their situation has been, and guidance for navigating a new country with unfamiliar language, norms and customs.

Saykov is grateful that he and Balaba got to stay with the Grovers, and for all the kindness the community has shown him. Being able to go to shul here has been an especially meaningful experience for him.

“I feel more like I’m in Kharkiv, in my own city, because I do this in Ukraine, and when I saw these people doing the same thing in Canada, I felt more safety here, and quiet.”

Although Canadians are broadly referring to all Ukrainians entering the country as refugees, most of them do not technically fall into that category.  Elise Herzig, executive director of Jewish Immigrant Aid Services (JIAS) Toronto, explained that a refugee is a specific technical term that does not apply in all cases where people need to leave their country quickly.

When Canada opened its borders up to Ukrainians, it did so under the Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel (CUAET). This program allows many Ukrainians to enter the country expeditiously, which is a benefit over the typical refugee system, but it does not provide the same support once they land in Canada.

JIAS is currently working with 161 Ukrainian newcomer families (over 300 people), about one-third of whom are Jewish.

Simone Goldberg had a tenant moving out of her basement apartment in the spring, right around the time Ukrainians were starting to come to Canada. Goldberg, who used to work at JIAS Toronto, got in touch with the organization and attended an information webinar.

She decided to host long-term, for six months and JIAS told her about a couple coming from Ukraine, Yosef Maxim and Alona Makarova. Maxim is Jewish, a dual citizen of Israel and Ukraine, while Makarova is in the process of converting. Goldberg also learned that Makarova is pregnant, and her expected delivery date is in September, when the couple will still be staying with Goldberg.

In anticipation of her new housemates, Goldberg reached out to her network of family and friends asking for donations of household goods. The response was quick and plentiful, as people were happy to help the couple get settled.

For his part, Maxim is appreciative of the response he and Makarova have received since moving into the Goldbergs’ home. He said that so far, everybody in Canada wants to help and have been very kind. That being said, there has still been a period of adjustment for them.

“It’s a little bit difficult in the beginning because… everything is new but the vibe is very good, the vibe is very positive because a lot of people are not careless and they try to help. So it’s very nice.

“It’s a good place to be. I wanted to come to Canada many years before, but it was not like a plan. It was like a dream. Now the dream has a little bit come true.”

Finding himself in a position of need is not a familiar one to Maxim, who is used to being more self-sufficient. But, given the circumstances his family finds itself in and the clear excitement and good-will from people who want to support him, he’s adjusted his usual mindset.

“It’s nice to have people in the Jewish community who really try to help. I try to make things by myself, to be a little bit more independent and not every time ask for people to help me,” he said. “I know that people really want to help. Because of that, we’re taking the help people offer us… We try to get as much help as we can get.”