At 14 years old, Yurii Bokalo fled Lviv along with his mother and three younger brothers, forced to leave behind his home and his father in war-torn Ukraine. He’s one of more than 50 students at a Toronto school who have arrived in Canada since the beginning of the war.
“Our father stayed in Ukraine and my dog, my family, our home, our possessions, their toys. Everything’s left there,” Bokalo said.
“I’m quite scared I won’t see my home again.”
St. Demetrius Catholic School in Etobicoke has taken in 54 students between the ages of four and 14 years old who have fled from Ukraine since Feb. 24, when Russia’s invasion began. Since then, more than 12 million Ukrainians have been driven from their homes, including more than 5.7 million who have fled to neighbouring countries, according to the United Nations.
Families and staff at the school have been helping collect donations from clothes to books and toys for the new students who were forced to leave most, if not all of their belongings after fleeing their homes in Ukraine.
Bokalo, who is now in Grade 8 at St. Demetrius, has family in Canada and had visited several times before. He said the school has made it easier for him to feel comfortable despite missing home.
“I’ve got an awesome teacher, cool classmates. It’s great that most of them can speak Ukrainian,” Bokalo said.
Principal Lily Hordienko said the school — which is one of three Ukrainian heritage language schools part of the Toronto Catholic District School Board — has allowed them to create an environment where Ukrainian students feel like they belong.
“We’re very blessed that we have the ability to provide them with not just a safe place, but a place where they can relate, where they can feel comfortable, where they can still feel comfortable speaking Ukrainian,” Hordienko said.
“We are here to try to make the whole experience for them less painful and more [of] an easier transition.”
The influx of students has required adjustments including larger classes, more ESL teachers and social workers, said Hordienko. The school grew from 246 students to 304 in just a few months.
“We are growing in numbers and the space is not growing,” Hordienko said
But she says they have the support to make it work — and will continue to welcome more students.
The Toronto Catholic District School Board has a total of eight secondary and 119 elementary students in total from Ukraine, a TCDSB spokesperson said in an email to CBC News Thursday.
Approximately 85 per cent of Ukrainian students that have arrived since February were admitted into three of the school board’s Ukrainian schools: St. Demetrius Catholic School, Josyf Cardinal Slipyj Catholic School, and St. Josaphat Catholic School.
Hordienko said the majority of students at the school have families who are still in Ukraine or have been forced to flee. Half of the staff at the school are Ukrainian and around 85 to 90 per cent of students speak Ukrainian fluently, she said.
“We feel it, we breathe it, we live it every day, as do the newcomers that come,” Hordienko said.
“A lot of the students that are arriving now, they’re coming with less and less. They have had to flee a country with basically just a bag with them. So the needs are higher and the numbers are greater.”
Laryssa Waler, a parent at St. Demetrius school, has been collecting toiletries and new shoes and underwear from the community at her home and taking it to the school.
Waler’s family was forced to flee Ukraine during the Second World War.
“We feel a real obligation to help families coming in now, like my family did 50 years ago.”
She says the response so far has been overwhelming but she hopes it continues.
“The war isn’t going to be over just because it’s not on the news and refugees are still coming,” Waler said. “And we’re going to need that help for a really long time.”
The Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) in Toronto has also opened up a storefront in Etobicoke this week, offering clothes and basic necessities at no cost for incoming Ukrainians.
The Ukrainian Canadian Parachute at 160 North Queen St. is volunteer-run and the first of its kind in Toronto for Ukrainian refugees to come in and pick up clothes, hygiene products or household goods.
“The people who have been coming in are very grateful because so many of them have come with nothing,” said Luba Tarapacky, the lead volunteer.
The UCC also plans to open a second parachute location at 150 Bridegland Ave. in North York.
Tarapacky said the store has received incredible support from the community.
“Everybody has been calling and asking what they can donate and wanting to bring things in,” she said.
“It’s not just the Ukrainian community, it is everybody. We’ve been so blessed with an amazing community in the Toronto area.”
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