A blue and yellow Ukraine ribbon, held together by a small Canadian flag pin, sits on the lapel of a coat hanging in the choir of St. John’s Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral in Edmonton.

Listen to audio story: Edmonton Church Rallies for Ukraine

Click here for audio story transcript
(Originally aired April 28, 2022)

How I Got This Story:

On my flight into Edmonton, I sat next to a Canadian photographer returning home from a trip to Europe. He’d visited Poland and Ukraine, taking pictures of refugees at the border between the two countries. As we flew over the snow-covered plains of Alberta, he looked out the window and said, “Yep, this is what Poland looks like.” 

I was heading to Edmonton to find out how Ukrainian-Canadians there are responding to the current war in Ukraine, and how they’re welcoming the new arrivals who’ve fled the violence. I knew, on a surface level, that Eastern Europe and Western Canada can both get bitterly cold, but it hadn’t occurred to me that the two places, halfway around the world from each other, might actually look similar from the sky. 

In fact, as I learned from historian Jans Balan, director of the Kule Ukrainian Canadian Studies Centre at the University of Alberta, the Canadian government actively recruited Ukrainians to come and farm the cold Canadian prairie in the late 19th century. Canada even instituted a law similar to the United States’s Homestead Act — if settlers would come and cultivate a piece of land, then they could have it. Because of similarities in weather and topography, Ukrainians could grow the same crops in Canada as they’d grown back home. It was a natural fit.

Many Ukrainians took the opportunity, and today there are Ukrainian communities in Canada that go back four or five generations. Outside Ukraine and Russia, Canada is home to the largest population of Ukrainians in the world. 

Though the current war in Ukraine is entering its third month, the United States did not announce a formal plan to admit people fleeing Ukraine until late April. Canada, on the other hand, began granting three-year residence to Ukrainians in mid-March. 

My beat for the Covering Religion seminar is Orthodox Christianity. Since Russia’s assault on Ukraine began soon after our class started, I’ve focused on New York’s Ukrainian Orthodox churches, reporting on one on the Upper West Side and one in the East Village. New York has the largest Ukrainian population in the United States, but Ukrainians here are not nearly as visible as they are in some towns and cities in Canada. 

More than 100,000 Ukrainians live in Edmonton, making up more than 10 percent of the city’s population. In 1983, the Edmonton Ukrainian community created the world’s first-ever monument to the Holodomor, a famine that killed millions of Ukrainians under Joseph Stalin 50 years earlier. The monument stands outside Edmonton’s City Hall, not far from another one dedicated to Alberta’s Ukrainian pioneer women. This other statue — the bronze “Madonna of the Wheat” by sculptor John Weaver — wears her hair atop her head in a traditional Ukrainian braid. 

Many of the city’s Ukrainians attend one of five Ukrainian Orthodox churches. (Some instead attend St. Barbara’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral, which was founded by Russian Orthodox missionaries to serve Edmonton’s Ukrainian community in 1902, though I learned that some St. Barbara’s members, wanting to distance themselves from the Russians, have been visiting Ukrainian churches since the war started.)

The largest of Edmonton’s Ukrainian Orthodox churches is St. John’s Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral. The Rev. Cornell Zubritsky, a priest at St. John’s, was my primary contact. I found his phone number on the cathedral’s website, and he told me he’s a member of a committee assembled by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada to coordinate the national church’s response to the war. (Zubritsky grew up north of Edmonton, in the town of Vegreville, where, he said, even non-Ukrainians speak with slight Slavic accents.)

Zubritsky was the one who told me about the airport welcome booth the Edmonton Ukrainian community has organized to welcome refugees from the war. He himself has taken shifts at the booth, and many others who attend the cathedral have, too.

When I got to the airport, I sat at the welcome booth for about an hour. (No one arrived from Ukraine, so I talked with Svitlana Fizer, who was staffing the booth, and she taught me the Cyrillic alphabet.)

The next day, I interviewed Zubristky and attended a welcome event for newly-arrived Ukrainians at the Ukrainian National Federation building. I met one young boy, Artom Yershov, who’d recently fled Ukraine with his parents. When I asked him whether he hopes to return to Ukraine someday, he said no. “I want to live in Edmonton, Canada,” he said. 

The Welcome event for new arrivals from Ukraine at the Ukrainian National Federation building in Edmonton.

On Palm Sunday, I went to the service at St. John’s Cathedral and heard Zubristky preach a sermon about Jesus accompanying the community in their difficult time through the suffering of his passion during Holy Week. 

The Rev. Cornell Zubritsky serves the eucharist on Palm Sunday.

Late Sunday night, I sat at the airport welcome booth until 1:00am, waiting for arrivals from Ukraine. More than 300 have come since the war began, and many have joined relatives already established in Edmonton. But some have arrived at the airport without a plan, and without anyone to pick them up. The welcome booth volunteers have driven new arrivals to the Edmonton Inn, which is offering them free temporary accommodation, and then quickly matched them with volunteer host families. 

Ivan Lypovyk, President of the Ukrainian National Federation in Edmonton, at the airport welcome booth.

Iryna Polishchuk is in-between these two situations. In Ukraine, she was an elementary school English teacher. Her daughter lives in Vancouver. When Russia started bombing Ukraine, she was about to return home to Ukraine from a vacation in Greece. Her daughter, who lives in Vancouver, called her to tell her she must not return to Ukraine, but should come to Canada instead. Polishchuk flew to Vancouver, with only what she’d packed for Greece — no coat, no boots. (The weather in Edmonton is still quite cold at this time of year. It snowed twice while I was there.) 

Polishchuk stayed in Vancouver for several weeks, but she and her daughter ultimately decided it would be best for her to go instead to Edmonton, more than 700 miles away. Since the Ukrainian community is bigger in Edmonton, she’d have a better chance there of finding a job. Polishchuk’s daughter’s long-distance partner lives in Edmonton, so she is staying with him while she looks for work. In the meantime, Ivan Lypovyk’s brother gave her a ride to a welcome event for Ukrainians at the Ukrainian National Federation building, and a woman she met on the Facebook page for Ukrainians in Edmonton offered to take her to the mall to help her find a coat. She’ll need one, as other Ukrainians who’ve arrived in Edmonton before here have found, but she’ll also have a warm community to sustain her.