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Tears, hugs and joy in St. John’s, N.L., as 166 Ukrainian refugees arrive from Poland

People waved Ukrainian flags and held up signs of welcome at the St. John’s International Airport
Adilya Dragan is a volunteer putting together boxes of supplies for the Ukrainian refugees set to arrive in St. John’s, N.L. Monday on a plane chartered by the provincial government. The 32-year-old mother of three originally from Russia said several rooms in her house are now full of donated supplies to help those arriving Monday feel welcome and cared for. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Adilya Dragan **MANDATORY CREDIT**

Nine-year-old Zoriana Shapoval had barely rounded the corner at the St. John’s International Airport Monday night when she saw her big sister Sofiia Shapoval waiting in the crowd, and ran straight for her outstretched arms.

Zoriana and her mother, Natalia Shapoval, were among 166 Ukrainian refugees who’d just arrived in Newfoundland aboard a plane chartered by the provincial government. Sofiia Shapoval is a genetics student at Memorial University in St. John’s, and she said it was an enormous relief to have her family close by in Canada, after months of fear and uncertainty.

“It feels so good,” Sofiia Shapoval said. “You don’t know where is your family or how you can help them, because they’re on the other side of the world.”

The plane Monday night arrived from Poland, where the Newfoundland and Labrador government has set up a satellite office to help Ukrainians fleeing Russian attacks on their homeland resettle in Canada’s easternmost province. The people working there have been handing out flyers, meeting with Ukrainians and helping them get paperwork in order. They chartered two buses to carry the 166 passengers on Monday’s flight from Warsaw to the airport in Katowice, which is about 300 kilometres away.

Immigration Minister Gerry Byrne and Premier Andrew Furey were beaming Monday night as they shook hands with the Ukrainians coming through doors flanked with the country’s blue and yellow flags.

A crowd of a few dozen people erupted in whoops and applause each time one came through the curtained-off entranceway. People waved Ukrainian flags and held up signs of welcome, written in both English and Ukrainian. Shapoval, her mother and her sister stood off to the side, hugging one another tightly, and holding up their phones to take selfies, their smiles wide and joyful.

The provincial government kept the flight’s landing time quiet, so the welcome wasn’t too overwhelming for the travel-weary refugees.

Byrne says Monday night’s flight is the first government-chartered plane to bring Ukrainians refugees to Canada. Newfoundland and Labrador’s successful efforts to transport and welcome the refugees — from the office in Warsaw to the generous residents on the ground offering whatever they can — is now the “gold standard” for other provinces and countries to follow, he said in an interview earlier Monday.

Stanislav, a tall, 28-year-old Ukrainian was one of the first to emerge from the flight. He smiled and laughed, and told reporters to call him Stan. The engineer said he’s heading to the small town of Baie Verte, about 600 kilometres away from St. John’s, where there are jobs in the local mining industry.

“I’m worried a lot about my father, who is an officer now,” he said. “Not anyone from my family is in occupied territory, but of course … everyone is worried that tomorrow Russians will be (causing) violence.”

Marjorie Williams was in the crowd holding up a brightly coloured welcome sign. She was waiting to meet a woman who’d be living in her apartment, after the two met through a local Facebook group aimed at pairing Ukrainians coming to Newfoundland with locals offering housing, supplies and jobs.

“I am so excited,” Williams said. “Today I said to myself, ‘I think I might be a little bit crazy, but … why not?’”

Everyone getting off the plane in St. John’s Monday night had somewhere to stay, whether through volunteers like Williams or through more official efforts, like those led by the province’s Association for New Canadians.

“This is a pretty big deal right now, it’s incredible,” said Megan Morris, the association’s executive director, who was at the airport helping co-ordinate a team of volunteers who had a school bus waiting to take the refugees where they needed to go.

There’s been a massive effort supporting the government’s initiative to bring Ukrainians to the province, she said, but many involved already had experience — last October, the province welcomed over 100 refugees from Afghanistan, for whom Morris’s team helped co-ordinate rides, supplies and places to stay.

Adilya Dragan has also been volunteering behind the scenes, putting together boxes of clothes, shoes, toiletries and even dishes for everyone on the plane. The 32-year-old from Russia lives just outside St. John’s, and she moderates a Facebook group for Newfoundlanders wanting to help Ukrainians.

Several rooms of her home are overrun with piles of donated supplies, and she’s arranged public drop-off sites where more stuff awaits, Dragan said in a recent interview.

“People are great here,” she said. “I love Newfoundlanders; they are the greatest people. You cannot find these people anywhere else in the world.”

—Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press

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