Ukrainian refugees turn to dance as they adapt to their new life in Canada


In the basement of the Ukrainian National Federation in Montreal, Anastasiia Solianyk stands in a circle with other women, swaying gently to the rhythm of the music. It’s a gray Saturday morning in December, and she’s in her weekly dance therapy class.

Solianyk, 35, is originally from Kyiv but left the Ukrainian capital when the Russian invasion began last February.

She first went to France, with her 8-year-old son, then found her husband, a sailor on a business trip, in Montreal.

« Dance therapy is very important, » she said. « Because all the emotions you have, they’re stuck in your body and if you don’t express them, they’re stuck even deeper. »

The dance class is part of a wellness program through the Montreal branch of the Ukrainian National Federation to support people like Solianyk soon after their arrival and help them adjust to life in Canada.

« A space for people to think »

When conflict in Ukraine erupted, Darya Naumova and Dasha Sandra, who are both originally from Ukraine and now live in Montreal, quickly came together to create wellness program, which takes into account the experiences of those coming to Canada from Ukraine.

The dance class, which involves music, colorful ribbons, and swaying and twirling movements, is one of them. The program also offers various support groups, art and dance activities for children and groups for parents.

“All of us who are Ukrainians in Canada needed something to keep us busy and feel like we were helping in some way,” said Naumova, 29, who is studying psychiatry at the University. McGill.

« All we wanted to do was provide a space for people to reflect on all of these challenges and reflect on their needs and maybe ease, even if it’s a bit, the difficult transition, » he said. she declared.

The Ukrainian National Federation in Montreal offers a therapeutic dance class — like this one in December — for newly arrived Ukrainians. (Alison Northcott/CBC)

Sandra, 27, who is working on a doctorate in clinical psychology, said those arriving had faced a series of unsettling experiences and needed an outlet to deal with the upheaval.

« For something as difficult to manage as escaping war, on top of immigration at a very rapid rate, » she said, « I think we’re filling a critical void. »

Solianyk hadn’t planned to uproot her life – she wanted to raise her family in Kyiv and says leaving felt like she was being kicked out of her own home.

Still, she says she feels lucky that the transition has gone well for her so far, although there are things she misses: a pet parrot left behind, some streets in Kyiv, people and networks.

« What you miss most are real friends, real people, relationships and creatures that depended on you, » she said.

Lack of mental health support

According to the latest information from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

Since the start of 2022, the department says more than 132,000 Ukrainian nationals have entered Canada.

Settlement agencies can help them find housing, jobs and schools.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada notes that while health care delivery is a provincial responsibility, some mental health supports are available through the federal government’s settlement program.

« IRCC provides mental health support to newcomers, including referrals to community health services, » the department wrote to CBC News in a statement.

But Dr. Christina Greenaway, an infectious disease specialist and researcher at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal, said adequate mental health support that meets the needs of Ukrainians arriving now can be hard to come by.

« Very strong early support, both from a settlement and mental health perspective, is extremely important in developing healthy people who can then settle into their new lives, » he said. she declared.

Close-up of two women
Dasha Sandra and Darya Naumova, pictured at the Ukrainian National Federation in Montreal in December, said they want to help newly arrived Ukrainians get the mental health support they need when they arrive in Canada. (Alison Northcott/CBC)

Greenaway wrote about gaps in access to various health services for recently arrived Ukrainians and other displaced people in a recent article in the Journal of the Canadian Medical Association.

Key gaps, she said, include the lack of universal access to interpreters and the need for better coordination between community groups, governments and healthcare providers.

“Ukrainians, like other refugees, are arriving to a health care system that is not well prepared and responsive to diverse populations who have different cultural and linguistic needs,” Greenaway said.

Volunteer psychologists offer their help

Along with activities like dance class and support groups, the wellness program also connects newcomers to free therapy through the McGill University Clinical Psychology Center.

Dr. Nate Fuks, director of the center, is originally from Kharkiv, in northeastern Ukraine, and has been in Canada since 2001.

WATCH | Ukrainian refugees need early intervention:

Early intervention key for Ukrainian newcomers, says psychologist

Dr. Nate Fuks, director of the Virginia I. Douglas Center for Clinical Psychology at McGill University, explains why it is important to provide early psychological help to people displaced by conflict.

When the Russian invasion began, Fuks says he was shocked and worried and wanted to help. He assembled a team of more than 200 volunteers – including psychologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists and social workers – who each underwent 30 hours of training to be able to provide trauma-informed therapy to people arriving from Ukraine.

« When people experience circumstances like war, » he said, « it has a major impact on their mental health in particular. The hardest part is the psychological trauma. »

Fuks says early intervention is essential to ensure newcomers are able to adjust to their new surroundings and avoid carrying trauma for years or decades and passing it on to the generation. next.

Although she didn’t want to leave Ukraine, Solianyk says she is working to build a new life for herself in Canada, with the help of her community.

« The most important thing is to continue in life, » she said.


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