Ukrainian refugees turn to dance as they adjust to new life in Canada – Canada

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

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

She went first to France, with her 8-year-old son, then met up with her husband, a seaman who had been travelling for work, in Montreal.

“Dancing therapy, it’s very important,” she said. “Because all emotions that you have, they are stuck in your body and if you don’t express them, they are 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 they arrive, and help them adjust to life in Canada. 

‘A space for people to reflect’

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

The dance class, which involves music, colourful ribbons and swaying and twirling movements, is part of it. 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 occupy ourselves and to feel like we’re helping in some way,” said Naumova, 29, who is studying psychiatry at McGill University.

“All we wanted to do is to provide a space for people to reflect on all of these challenges and reflect on their needs and perhaps lessen, even if by a little bit, the difficult transition,” she said.

Wide view dancers in a circle, holding ribbons
The Ukrainian National Federation in Montreal offers a therapeutic dance class — like this one in December — for recently-arrived Ukrainians. (Alison Northcott/CBC)

Sandra, 27, who is working on a doctorate in clinical psychology, said those arriving have faced a range of troubling experiences and need an outlet to process the upheaval.

“For something as difficult to handle as escaping the war, on top of immigration at a very fast pace,” she said, “I think that we are filling in a crucial gap.”

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

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

What you miss the most is real friends, real people, relations and creatures that were dependent on you,” she said.

Mental health support lacking

More than 700,000 Ukrainian nationals and their family members have applied for special temporary resident visas, called the Canada-Ukraine authorization for emergency travel, to come to Canada since the beginning of the Russian invasion, according to the latest information from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

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

Settlement agencies can help them with things like finding housing, work, and schools.

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

“IRCC does provide some mental health support to newcomers, including referrals to community health services,” the ministry 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 support early, both from a settlement and a mental health point of view, is extremely important to building healthy people moving forward that then can settle into their new lives,” she said.

Close up of both 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-care services for recently arrived Ukrainians and other displaced people in a recent article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Key gaps, she said, include a lack of universal access to interpreters and the need for better co-ordination between community groups, governments and health-care providers.

“Ukrainians, as with other refugees, are coming into a health-care system that is not well prepared and adapted to diverse populations that have different cultural and linguistic needs,” Greenaway said.

Volunteer psychologists offer help

Aside from activities like the dance class and support groups, the wellness program also connects newcomers to free therapy through McGill University’s clinical psychology centre.

Dr. Nate Fuks, the centre’s director, is from Kharkiv, in north-east Ukraine, and has been in Canada since 2001.

WATCH | Ukrainian refugees need early intervention:

Early intervention is key for Ukrainian newcomers, says psychologist

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

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

“When people undergo circumstances such as war,” he said, “it has a major impact on their mental health in particular. The most difficult one is psychological trauma.”

Fuks says intervening quickly is key to ensure new arrivals are able to adapt to their new surroundings, and avoid carrying trauma for years or decades and passing it on to the next generation.

Even though she didn’t want to leave Ukraine, Solianyk says she’s working to build a new life in Canada, with the help of her community.

“The most important is to continue in life,” she said.

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