May 30th, 2024

‘I just want to be safe’: Ukrainian man in Canada faces limbo amid consular freeze

By Simon Hopkins, The Canadian Press on April 26, 2024.

Mykyta Zakharchenko, 18, poses for a portrait in Ottawa, in a Thursday, April 25, 2024 handout photo. Men eligible for military service in Ukraine will lose access to administrative services abroad, the Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba announced in a social media post Tuesday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Simon Hopkins

OTTAWA – The future was just starting to appear bright for Mykyta Zakharchenko.

The 18-year-old’s youth in Ukraine was shadowed by two major conflicts with Russia before he escaped to Canada in 2022.

With harrowing experiences of war behind him, he recently graduated high school, competes internationally as a rower and is determined to study finance in a few years.

But a recent decision to restrict consular services for fighting-aged Ukrainian men has made him feel less certain of his next steps – and worried he could be pulled back to the war.

Men eligible for military service in Ukraine will lose access to administrative services abroad, Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba announced in a social-media post Tuesday.

It’s part of a bid to bolster Ukraine’s forces, which are in need of more arms and soldiers to continue defending against the Russian invasion.

Zakharchenko’s family was first forced to flee violent conflict between Ukraine and Russia more than a decade ago, when they lived in Alchevsk, in the far east of the country.

To flee fighting in the east between Ukrainian and pro-Russian fighters, they moved west to Cherkasy, a town southeast of the capital city of Kyiv.

When Russia mounted a full-scale invasion of the country two years ago, they fled again.

At the time, Zakharchenko was just 16 years old. He stood in line for two days with his mother, grandmother and siblings to escape through the Polish border on foot.

He moved to Ottawa alone six months later, leaving his family in Europe. He’s flourished in Canada, finished school and found a job.

But his Ukrainian passport is set to expire soon, and he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to renew it.

“I celebrated my 18th birthday in Canada and now I cannot get a Ukrainian passport,” he said in an interview.

In turn, without a valid passport, he may not be able to travel or renew his visa to stay in Canada.

To renew his documents, Zakharchenko would need to return to Ukraine – and once there, he would be barred from leaving.

Ukraine implemented martial law shortly after Russia’s invasion in February 2022. Men aged 18 to 60 were forbidden from leaving the country and Ukraine began military conscription.

Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently announced that all consular services would be restricted for men until May 18.

That’s the day several amendments to Ukraine’s martial law will come into effect. A section of the bill passed by the Ukrainian parliament will require men to be registered with a draft office in order to receive consular services.

Men living outside of the country should not be free of responsibility, the foreign affairs minister said.

“Staying abroad does not relieve a citizen of his or her duties,” Kuleba wrote in a post on X.

“A man of conscription age went abroad, showed his state that he does not care about its survival, and then comes and wants to receive services from this state. It does not work this way.”

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada did not immediately respond to a request for comment about how Ottawa will treat applications from Ukrainian men without valid passports.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Zakharchenko said of the new restrictions.

He doesn’t think the increased pressure from Kyiv to bring men back to the country to fight will work.

“What about people from the occupied territories? What will they do? They don’t have anything,” he said.

Those whose homes have been destroyed and who have no job to return to in Ukraine would struggle, he argued.

For his part, Zakharchenko said he wants to stay in Canada so he can financially support his family, who are living in Germany.

“I have to work,” he said. “I have to support myself and them.”

He has two jobs lined up for the summer, and plans to attend university in a few years. He is applying for permanent residency status to stay in Canada over the long term.

One day, he said, he hopes to return to Ukraine – but not at the risk of his future.

“I just want to be safe,” he said. “I have a new life, but I always want to go back to Ukraine and visit.”

Ukraine’s embassy in Canada did not respond to request for comment.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 26, 2024.

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