In the midst of the Russian invasion, Oleksandra Balytska got a remote job in kyiv at a new Canadian AI company, hoping to support her family.
But last fall, when the capital city was plunged into darkness amid attacks on Ukraine’s electrical systems, Balytska’s employer invited her to move to Toronto.
When Balytska landed in Toronto last December, she was immediately struck by the cost of food.
“I was so terrified that I only bought two ramen because of the prices,” she said.
Balytska was one of 60,000 Ukrainians who immigrated to Ontario under the Canada-Ukraine Emergency Travel Authorization (CUAET) program because of the war. Under the federal program, each adult is eligible for a one-time payment of $3,000, while families with children can receive an additional $1,500 for each child.
But in a city like Toronto, that sum quickly disappeared. Balytska says she was asked for three months’ rent in advance, while some of her friends were asked for more.
Then, half a year later, Balytska was fired from the same company that invited her to Canada. After seeing the “brutal” job market where, according to her, she had to compete with hundreds of applicants for a position, she decided it was time to return home.
“I have traded security for comfort,” he said.
It is not clear how many have returned
Balytska is not alone.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) told Breaking: that it “does not track travelers who depart with valid travel documents to enter Canada.”
However, Andrei Zavialov, a Toronto Ukrainian Canadian Social Services settlement worker, told Breaking: that he personally knows about 15 Ukrainians who have already returned home from the Greater Toronto area.
Zavialov recently surveyed 734 CUAET visa holders in the Toronto area and found that 40.2 percent of respondents said they would do “everything possible” to stay permanently in Canada.
Meanwhile, 4.9 percent of respondents said they would return to Ukraine (and 4.7 percent to Europe) “at the first opportunity.” Another 11.6 percent said they would return to Ukraine only when the war is over, and the rest are still not sure.
Zavialov’s survey found that “parents, family and relatives” were the main factor motivating respondents to return. Other motivating factors included a love for their homes and a longing for life in the Ukraine.
The desire to return is stronger than the fear of war
For Yehor Horenych, a 17-year-old student from the central city of Dnipro, the urge to return home was stronger than the fear of bombs.
Horenych’s mother sent him to Vaughan in April 2022 so that he could live with his aunt safely. But after spending two months in the GTA, he said he felt “limited” and homesick for him.
Horenych said she had a hard time making friends at a Canadian high school due to cultural differences. Feeling isolated, he decided to return despite the violence.
“Canada is a beautiful country with beautiful nature and nice people,” he said. “But North America is far from Europe.”
“I couldn’t get used to the Canadian way of life. The European way of life…is too familiar, too beloved,” he added. “We couldn’t afford to stay in [another] European country, so I went back to Ukraine.”
Since then, Horenych says he has witnessed multiple attacks on apartment buildings in his city, including a Russian missile attack on a nine-story residential building that killed 46 people in January.
Still, he said: “We are confident in our victory.”
‘It’s your land and it’s your home’
Oleksandra Sakhnatska, a computer programming and analysis graduate from Seneca College, has lived in Toronto since 2016. When the full-scale invasion began, she immediately wanted to return home to Kiev.
In the last two years, Sakhnatska has returned to Ukraine twice.
At first, Sakhnatska decided to help Ukrainian mothers with children to settle and find work in the GTA. She then co-founded the Ukrainian Resistance Canada, a non-profit organization that focuses on awareness campaigns and fundraising for war relief efforts.
But Sakhnatska wanted to go further. So she packed her bags (75 kilograms of medical aid, sleeping bags and foot warmers for the Ukrainian soldiers) and she headed for kyiv last fall.
“It was my ‘vacation’. Actually, people laughed at me because very normal people go on vacation to Cuba, to the Dominican Republic. And where does Alex go on vacation? To Ukraine! I couldn’t not go because I was attracted to “, said.
“It’s your land and it’s your home.”
With no direct passenger flights since the war broke out, Sakhnatska had to fly from Toronto to Warsaw and then take two trains to finally reach Kiev.
He remembers “the feeling of a war zone” when the train turned off the lights at night just after crossing the border with Ukraine to avoid being targeted by possible attacks.
While in kyiv, Sakhnatska completed training in tactical medicine to help anyone injured by blasts. She has also volunteered for various initiatives, from cooking food for soldiers to seeking donors to help treat the worst cases of PTSD caused by the horrors of war.
Initially, Sakhnatska wanted to return to Ukraine for good, but decided it would be “selfish” to put her desire to stay ahead of the broader efforts she could coordinate from Canada.
“I could be a combat medic, yes, but then I could die very quickly,” she said.
“I could do so much more from [Canada]”.
Love for Canada with a call home
Despite their need to return or visit home, the three Ukrainians who spoke to CBC Toronto expressed their affection for Canada.
“I am very grateful to Canada, for everything Canada has done for the Ukrainians,” Balytska said, citing in particular access to English courses and help from the Red Cross.
But he doubled down on his decision to return at the expense of his safety.
“We survived the Holodomor famine. We survived World War I, World War II. We survived the Chernobyl tragedy,” Balytska said.
“So, I mean,” he chuckled, “we can survive pretty much anything.”