A basement in Montreal’s Mile End neighborhood blared with upbeat Ukrainian music Friday afternoon as a group of children performed a jubilant dance routine before an audience of parents who saved them from war in their home country.
The 30 children, ranging in age from five to 12, were the first cohort to attend Camp Dyvo, a new free summer program that aims to help Ukrainian refugee children and their families settle in Montreal. Friday’s performance marked the end of the first two-week camp session. A new batch of 30 children will start next week.
Dyvo, or “wonder” in English, is an initiative of the Quebec branch of the Ukrainian National Federation.
Branch president Taras Kulish said the goal of the program is to foster a sense of community among newcomers and help them integrate into their new surroundings, using day trips to familiarize participating families with the city. The camp is based at the federation community center.
So far, the camp has proven to be a critical social contact point for refugees who fled the Russian-initiated war in Ukraine, Kulish said.
“You can only imagine leaving behind your family, all your precious possessions,” he said in a recent interview. “You come to this country where you don’t know anyone, you don’t have family, you don’t have friends. So building a community through meeting people from your own culture, you imagine would be very important.”
The program serves to promote Ukrainian culture while anchoring new immigrants in Montreal, Kulish explained, adding that it creates jobs for refugees by employing them as camp leaders. It also emphasizes the use of the Ukrainian language among the campers, many of whom attend school in French.
The result is what Kulish described as a “stimulating” environment that instills an appreciation for the Ukrainian language and culture.
For Maryna Kucher, the camp has been a way to ensure that her 11-year-old son feels a connection to his home country. She and her two children arrived in Canada in April 2022, shortly after the war began. Kucher’s husband stayed behind to fight.
“I am very happy with this program because our children need to maintain their language, their traditions, especially when they are younger,” she said before the presentation began on Friday. “It is very important to talk, sing, draw, be together and help each other”.
Camp coordinator Olena Khomyakova said the camp has been able to harness the talents of the refugee community to offer activities for children. Local Ukrainian artists have held painting demonstrations and stop-motion filmmaking.
The walls of the community center’s basement theater are adorned with children’s drawings and posters, all with messages in Ukrainian.
Anastasiia Soliak, whose nine-year-old son attended the camp, said the experience helped ease her integration into Quebec.
He said it was “very important that the children integrate but also that they be in [a] secure network, which is the first step before integration into the new society”.
The Ukrainian National Federation received 200 applications from local families hoping to enroll their children in the camp this year, Kulish said. He said that he is trying to secure enough funding to expand the program in the coming years.