Three Ukrainian children who fled to Canada after the start of the war with Russia are now stuck in Mexico — unable to come home because of visa complications.
Olga Ostapiv took in the children — a nine-year-old boy and two 12-year-old girls — and became their legal guardian because she wanted to help people from her homeland. One of the girls is her sister’s granddaughter while the other two are the children of family friends.
The children arrived in Canada in May and she said they had been adjusting to their new lives in Edmonton.
“They are very sweet, good behaviour kids,” Ostapiv said.
Her family was slated to take a trip to Mexico, postponed because of the pandemic, and Ostapiv said she could not bear the thought of leaving the three kids behind, so they accompanied her to Puerto Vallarta.
The family arrived in Mexico on Dec. 11 and Ostapiv said the kids were happy and enjoying themselves.
But when they tried to board the flight back on Dec. 18, Ostapiv said she was told they could not return to Canada.
The children arrived on Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel visas (CUAET), but the type of CUAET visa they received only allows for a one-time entry into Canada, something Ostapiv did not realize.
“It make[s] me sick,” Ostapiv said.
Ostapiv submitted new visa applications for the three children on Dec. 22 but there has been no response. The children have been stuck in Mexico, moving from hotel to hotel as they await word on their fate.
“Every day, twice a day, I’m going to my computer. I’m checking. Maybe it’s some news,” she said.
Two months and counting
Ostapiv initially stayed with the children but as the issue dragged on, she became desperate and even considered sending them back to Ukraine.
“When I told this [to] the kids, they [were] looking at me, ‘Please don’t send us back home,'” Ostapiv said.
She changed her mind and stayed with them until the beginning of January, when she had to go back to Edmonton for work.
Another relative is now with the children.
“I’m doing my best to bring them home … to fix my mistake,” she said, with tears in her eyes.
“It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s only my fault.”
CBC News spoke with the children over video chat in Puerto Vallarta.
“We really want to return to Canada because it is very difficult for us,” said 12-year-old Yuliia.
“We miss our friends and family,” said 12-year-old Anastasiia.
Frustration from those helping
Mike Thomas is a Ukrainian relief organizer who has been helping Ostapiv with the situation.
Thomas said he has been talking to MPs and reaching out to Immigration Minister Sean Fraser on the family’s behalf. He is frustrated by the inaction.
“Enough is enough, you know? We realize there’s a mistake made and everybody understands that,” Thomas said.
“But we have a five-minute solution to this problem … The minister signs a letter, they can issue a travel document instantaneously and [the kids] could be on the next flight home.”
Fraser was not available for an interview. His spokesperson noted that Fraser is not able to speak to specific cases.
“The time it takes to process an application varies according to a number of factors and more complex applications may take longer. We continue to process applications as quickly as possible,” reads a statement provided to CBC News from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.
As for Ostapiv, that wait is unbearable.
“When I am looking [at a] calendar, it is two months. But my feeling, it is like forever,” she said.