June 20 is World Refugee Day.
Established by the United Nations in 2001 in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, World Refugee Day is a day to honour and celebrate the strength and fortitude of people forced to flee their home country to escape conflict or persecution.
We sat down with Svitlana Bondarenko, the Ukrainian settlement counsellor at YWCA Hamilton and a refugee herself, in a conversation for World Refugee Day about her journey, celebrations and reflections.
Svitlana arrived in Canada last year with her family and two dogs after fleeing the war in Ukraine. “It was a struggle – we did not know where to go after landing in Canada,” she said. Her family did not have any support or community around them. “Finding permanent housing was a big struggle; we did not have any credit score or references that landlords usually require,” she explains.
When asked about her most challenging obstacle, she explained that finding employment was a struggle. Her experience and educational credentials from Ukraine were not considered for any job as employers seek Canadian working experience.
Eventually, at YWCA Hamilton’s annual Holiday Market – event newcomers can stock up on toys for their children and necessities free of charge – she met with folks from YWCA Hamilton’s Employment and Training Program. Lina Cardozo, Newcomer Employment Counsellor and Job Developer guided Svitlana toward the job opening for Ukranian Settlement Counsellor. Lizzette Mendez, a Newcomer Employment Counsellor, helped Svitlana with her resume and interview. “All the folks at Employment and Training and folks at the YWCA, you can tell everyone cares and really wants to help you find the resource and service you need.”
As the Ukranian Settlement Counsellor, she works with Ukranian refugees to find services and employment in the community that can help them settle down and start their lives in Hamilton and Canada. In her work supporting refugees, she finds that “many newcomers and refugees have left their countries because of war or some unfortunate event – more than anything, they need an empathetic listening ear.” She expresses, “I want to ease other people’s struggles because it is tough when you don’t have anyone who can understand or communicate with you.”
The United Nations states that World Refugee Day serves as an opportunity to advocate for the fundamental rights of refugees. However, refugees and newcomers also reserve the right to pursue their dreams and aspirations; they deserve to pursue the career and lifestyles they want.
For many refugees and newcomers in Canada, employers do not recognize any non-Canadian work experience or educational degrees – many come to Canada having worked in their respective fields for years. Still, they cannot pursue their profession without recognition and must turn to survival work. For many newcomers, employers see it as a drawback even when they speak fluent English but with an accent. Another barrier to the right to pursue their dreams is the prejudice and xenophobia that refugees and newcomers face.
We must recognize the right of refugees and newcomers to pursue their dreams and advocate for the tools and resources they need to do that. Beyond refugee status, they need affordable housing and education, recognition of their previous work experiences and education from their native countries, low-barrier employment opportunities, and psychological and wellness services.
As we celebrate World Refugee Day, we must also reflect on refugees’ strength, resilience, and determination worldwide. Svitlana Bondarenko’s story is a powerful reminder of the challenges faced by individuals forced to leave their homes and seek safety elsewhere. Today and every day, let us honour refugees and commit ourselves to extend empathy, compassion, and assistance to those in need, fostering a more inclusive and welcoming world.