Ukrainian refugee students displaced by war receive warm welcome at Toronto Catholic school

In the corridors of St. Demetrius’ Catholic School in Etobicoke, Falgía’s first-grade class has just wrapped up for the day and there is a hustle and bustle of activity. A 6-year-old and her 7-year-old are dressed in winter clothes and ready to go home. Parents are eagerly waiting outside. Most are mothers. The children’s father has returned to Ukraine.

All students at our Toronto school are of Ukrainian descent. Almost half of them arrived last year.

“It hit February 24. About two weeks later, we started accepting students,” recalls Lily Hordienko, the school’s principal.

“Then they started coming in droves…and they’re still coming.”

On the day Global News visited the school, three more students from Ukraine were enrolled in the class.

“We realized we needed more classrooms, more space, more teachers. We installed more mobile devices,” Hordienko says.

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The school now has a total of 6 portables outside the building to meet their growing needs.

The walls of the school are painted in bright colors, but the most prominent are the blues and yellows that mark the Ukrainian flag.

When the children pack their bags, some speak in English, others in their native Ukrainian.

“When they arrive, they hear Ukrainian, they pray in Ukrainian, they sing the national anthems of Canada and Ukraine. I feel,” Hodienko said.

Hordienko, now the principal of the school, attended as a child and then sent his own children.

“This is the community we all come back to. We cater from young children to the elderly,” he said.

St. Demetrius Catholic School is an Eastern Ritual school within the Toronto Catholic District School Board and has been in existence for 45 years.

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Located in the hub of Ontario’s Ukrainian community. The school is located between the Ukrainian Elderly Residence and the Ukrainian Church, the Parish of Saint Demetrius the Great Martyr. There is also a Ukrainian credit union serving the elderly nearby.

True community in every sense of the word is exactly what newcomers need when they arrive, explained the church’s associate pastor, Fr.

“A few weeks after the invasion began, people started arriving in Canada,” Swistan said. “As people were filling out their visas, we got calls from Poland, Germany, and other countries asking, ‘Do you have a place to stay around your church?’ I heard about your school.

Swystun said his parents came to Canada as refugees after World War II, so there is a deep understanding among parishioners.

“Many of our parishioners have fled poverty … so we are all wondering what resettlement is like, what it is like to not have everything others have. So everyone in our community has experienced it at some point or has had someone in their family. Everyone rolls up their sleeves and welcomes them,” he said.

Some senior Ukrainian refugee students from St. Demetrius attend a pierogi-making session with their church seniors.

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“I sit by these women because they remind me of my grandma. Most of the women already know how to make pierogies and sit down to bond and share stories. It’s also cross-generational support,” added Swystun.

With the support of schools, churches and communities, refugee families receive gift cards and weekly grocery deliveries.

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The school’s library has also been transformed into a space where families can access free dry goods, fresh bread and warm children’s clothing when needed.

Hordienko calls this a “holistic approach” to making refugees feel welcome.

“Most people have families in Ukraine, so we were living and breathing with newcomers,” she said.

In one of the portables, teacher Lisa Perri prepares her 8th grade class for a project to embark on Black History Month.

She slowly clarifies her purpose and begins asking questions to her students.

The children are shy at first, but some of them raise their hands.

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Some users use Google Translate on their computers because language remains a challenge.

“We have a lot of students who don’t speak English at all. On their computers, you can use a translation app. That kind of thing helps them feel comfortable and when they’re having trouble getting something We want to say to the other side,” Perry said.

Teaching is only part of Perry’s job.

“Many of these students have little or nothing. “They often have only one parent, or no parent or sponsor. They come with limited resources. It was difficult to make sure that it was set to

“They look after the mental health of these kids. Did they eat lunch? Do they have snacks? …The staff are incredible,” Hordienko said. increase.

A bell rings. It’s Friday afternoon. Students go home on weekends. Some of the little ones stop to hug Oldienko on the way home. They smiled when she spoke to them in Ukrainian.

“There is nothing traditional about what happened here last year,” she said.

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